A happy marriage between The Low End Theory sonically and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) lyrically, so naturally it ticks everyone’s boxes. The rapper is mostly good except when he drops “my style switches like a faggot / But not bisexual, I’m an intellectual” which is worse than any of the homophobic bile that Eminem has spewed (which at least is meant to be funny, regardless of whether it often is or not) and makes me thankful that two decades later, we’re better than that (hopefully). Some lines: “aimin’ guns in all my baby pictures / Beef with housing police, release scriptures that’s maybe Hitler’s”; “So stay civilized, time flies / Though incarcerated, your mind dies, I hate when your mom cries / It kinda makes me want to murder”; “But I’mma lamp, cause a crime couldn’t beat a rhyme / Niggas catching 3 to 9’s, Muslims yelling ‘free the mind'”; other people have compared Nas to Dylan, and it’s not just an easy namedrop: both are influenced by poetry as they are the world around them, and in this case, it lets Nas make detail observations that transports you straight to 90s’ New York. It helps that he raps over beats worth talking about: the baton trading between treble chords and bass notes on the piano of “N.Y. State of Mind,” the “summer Saturday” fingersnaps throughout “Life’s a Bitch” to quote Rolling Stone‘s Toure’s review released that same year, “Halftime”‘s sleighbell detail that you wouldn’t expect in a hip-hop album, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”‘s indelible “ooh”‘s, the vibraphone-generated atmosphere of “One Love,” the unconventional drum sound throughout “One Time 4 Your Mind,” the Michael Jackson sample on “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” And it helps even more than unlike almost every other hip-hop album from the 90s, this one is blissfully short: 9 tracks and 1 skit totalling less than 40 minutes with little room for failure and thus, there is none. And it helps that Nas turns all of these hooks into anthems, making you believe in the nilihism that informs “Life’s a Bitch” and creating a mass riot with the rhetoric “Who’s world is this?”: “IT’S YOURS!”
All that being said, I find it baffling that for all the talk about Nas that people have glossed over what is undeniably the best verse of this album (by a landslide) and one of the best verses the world has ever seen: AZ’s opening verse on “Life’s a Bitch” that uses Nas’s predilection for literary devices the whole way through: “Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary / And my mentality is money-orientated”; “Keeping this Schweppervescent street ghetto essence inside us / Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us.” And AZ has a greater awareness of how space helps flow than Nas demonstrates throughout the album (not to say that Nas doesn’t do this), letting certain lines become hooks in and of themselves. Figure it out.