Bridging the Gaps

Rap legend Nas broadens his scope with the two-CD Street's Disciple.

Like most men welcomed as prophets, Nas' divinity comes from a belief in his potential rather than a surfeit of verified miracles. His 1994 debut, Illmatic, is an indisputable classic, but he followed it by sputtering through five years of lackluster follow-ups that betrayed shallow, material obsessions and a teetering God complex. The towering height of his folly came with 1999's "Hate Me Now," a self-aggrandizing aria of Wagnerian proportions: "Hell or the pearly gates/I was destined to come/Predicted, blame God/He blew breath in my lungs." Nas cast himself as a martyr, but he was only a messiah in his own mind.

His salvation lay in settling back into reality, letting his life lead and his art follow. Nas' public battle with Jay-Z refocused his energies for 2001's Stillmatic, while 2003's God's Son built a tight, emotional core around the passing of his mother. With the new Street's Disciple, Nas puts all his proverbial eggs into a double-album basket, a sprawling effort that is his most ambitious to date.

At first glance, the album's charms aren't immediately obvious. At 26 songs, Street's Disciple lacks God's Son's cohesion. It also suffers from a handful of weak collaborations—Busta Rhymes is reduced to merely reciting a hook on "Suicide Bounce," while both Nas and Maxwell phone in their performances for the listless dance cut "No One Else in the Room." Especially as a double album, it's easy to wonder if Street's Disciple would have been better off edited down to one disc.

That's no small issue—hip-hop's double-CD track record is mostly laughable. Jay-Z's Blueprint 2 was such a lazy, self- indulgent retread of the original Blueprint—twice the length, half the inspiration. The Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever was unwieldy and bloated; both Tupac's All Eyes on Me and Biggie's Life After Death avoided criticism for their ponderous lengths on account of the artists' tragic deaths. With Street's Disciple, Nas initially seems poised to join the club.

However, with each listen, it becomes harder to dismiss the album as a mere ego trip. This is a deeply personal effort—not just topically, but also in its creative scope. Artists brag about making albums "the way they wanted to," but Street's Disciple's eclectic song selection rarely bows to calculated convention or commercial archetypes. There's no obligatory, Neptunes-produced club anthem, no Southern bounce song, and neither of the first two singles—"Thief's Theme" and "Bridging the Gap"—are particularly radio-friendly or crossover ready.

Instead, Nas shuffles an array of diverse topics, issues, and moods, from honoring his lyrical mentor on "The Unauthorized Biography of Rakim" to facing down the government on "A Message to the Feds, Sincerely, We the People." In particular, Nas builds many ideas—on marriage, politics, fatherhood, etc.—with pairs of songs. For example, "Sekou Story" and its sequel, "Live Now," follow the story of a murdered drug dealer, Sekou, and his widow, Scarlett. Besides narrating Sekou's rise and fall, Nas also rhymes in lyrical drag as Scarlett, dispensing advice back to himself through her voice: "Critics and fans/They need to get a life/You doing the right thing/Settle down/Get a wife." The Sekou/Scarlett duo is so sophisticated and intriguing, you could easily imagine an entire album based on their exploits.

Likewise, "War" and "Me and You" focus on Nas' daughter Destiny, but the former travels back a decade to when she was born, relaying Nas' life at the time ("Yeah/Nine Four/Destiny opens her eyes/For the first time, praise God/Baby mom's crying"), while the latter is a letter to his now-10-year-old child ("Even though you'll be grown soon/You gotta stand on your two/Please listen what Daddy told you"). Both songs work on their own, but either one would be far less poignant without its sibling.

This said, Street's Disciple is far from flawless. Nas' most controversial pairing—"American Way" and "These Are Our Heroes"—criticizes black leaders and celebrities like Condoleezza Rice, Tiger Woods, and Kobe Bryant. But the last time anyone checked, Nas' civil rights record was hardly laudable, especially when he discourages youth from voting on "American Way" ("Who you gonna elect/Satan or Satan?") or brags about his XXX-rated sexual exploits on "Remember the Times" ("Chelsea used to tell me choke her while I stroke her").

Still, for an artist who has often promised more than he could deliver, Street's Disciple frames Nas at an important artistic crossroads. On The Black Album's "Moment of Clarity," Nas' mike rival Jay-Z offered a cheap excuse for what he could/should have done as an MC but chose not to ("I can't help the poor if I'm one of them"). In comparison, Nas is more willing to follow his creative instincts and wager his carefully honed reputation on a risky double album. Finally ready to stop fretting over market share, street cred, or his own legacy, with Street's Disciple, Nas seems poised to cement all three.

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