Review Summary: Short, but excellent career overview of the QB legend.
When this album was announced, it was greeted with a deal of skepticism, and that's understandable; it's easy to see Nas's career as being dominated by one album. That album is still regarded as one of the best debut albums in history, in any genre - it's practically peerless within the field of hip-hop. So it probably goes without saying that Illmatic
is both a blessing and a curse for Nas as an artist. A curse because nothing he will ever do will match up to it, and critics will constantly remind people of that fact, yet a blessing, because it was the only reason his career wasn't completely killed by "Oochie Wallie". The number of rappers who could drop a verse that bad, on a song that terrible, and get away with it, could be counted on two hands.
Yet where it curses him most is that, over time, people have tended to led Illmatic
overpower his other material to the point where it lies almost forgotten. That's where Greatest Hits
comes in. Far from proving that Illmatic
was his peak, it actually does a great job of pointing out that quality runs throughout Nas' career.
Sure, the Illmatic
tracks are brilliant. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that. "It Ain't Hard To Tell", the AZ-featuring "Life's A Bitch", "One Love" (with Q-Tip), and "N.Y. State of Mind" are the four chosen, and each is a gem. "N.Y. State of Mind", in particular, is flat-out one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, and the occasionally overlooked "One Love" is more intelligent and thoughtful than most give it credit for.
But once that's over with, the album's following 8 tracks make it clear that Nas never really stopped making great music. That's clear from the off - "If I Ruled The World", which featured Lauryn Hill back when she was at her best, is brilliant. It's actually hard to imagine how else Nas could have moved on from Illmatic
- this is just about equal in quality to anything on that album, and it's clearly a step away, if not necessarily forward, from Illmatic
into a territory that allowed for commercial stardom without sacrificing lyrical intelligence (much). The next two songs continue in that vein - "Street Dreams" (here in its remixed, "Mercy Mercy Me" form) and "Hate Me Now" may have been mocked by many at the time, but the latter in particular is better than you remember.
It's at this point, though, that this compilation plays its ace. See, Nas' greatest song wasn't on Illmatic
. In fact, it wasn't even released until 2002. That song is "One Mic" - for my money, the best rap song of this decade. The structure - slowly building up from a simple In The Air Tonight
sample toward the full production - is like hearing two mini hip-hop versions of "Stairway to Heaven", before Nas flips the script for the third verse and does the same thing in reverse. The lyrical performance is brilliant, the passion with which Nas handles his words even better. This song blew me away on first listen, and it's still having the same effect now. Not many rap songs can send chills up my spine. This is one of them.
The other Stillmatic
selection is Bill O'Rielly's favourite song, "Got Ur Self A Gun". This was Nas' comeback after the period of his career sadly defined by "Oochie Wallie", and the feeling Nas fans got when they first heard this has probably ensured this song's status as a Nas classic. It helps that it's a great song, too, with a fantastic production job. The same's true of the playful "Made You Look" ('Don't say my car's topless, say the titties is out' is yet another addition to the book of great Nas one-liners that way back started in 1991 with 'verbally, I'm iller than a AIDS patient'). The album's closed out neatly by two songs that define Nas' outlook - the cutely inspirational "I Can" and the bluesy "Bridging The Gap", featuring his father, jazz cornetist Olu Dara. Nas raps here that 'All these years I been voicin' my blues, I'm an artist from the start, hip-hop guided my heart'. Even if it's possibly the worst 'old' song here, those words make it a fitting ending to this album, and explain why the two new songs were put at the beginning of this album, rather than the end.
So what of the new songs? The jazzy "Surviving The Times" ties together the feel of Illmatic
and the sound of Street's Disciple
, bringing his career full circle. Given some of the crappy new songs that some artists dump on their greatest hits to shift units, this track's a pleasant surprise, because it's actually pretty good. The other is the theme from Rush Hour 3, "Less Than An Hour", featuring Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley/Goodie Mob fame. Honestly, he enlivens this song, which is otherwise a slightly boring affair shot through with an oddly fitting combination of dark strings and surf-influenced guitar. It's actually a straight-up duet, as opposed to Cee-Lo just singing the hook on a Nas track, which by virtue of convention makes it sound more like a Nas guest appearance on a Cee-lo track. It sits oddly with the rest of the material here.
Sure, this is only 14 tracks, and two of them are new recordings. There's stuff that's been left out, and there remains room for a more comprehensive Nas collection in the future. There's no "Halftime" (the first Nas song of note) or "Live At The BBQ" (the Main Source song where Nas made his first appearance on record), no "Nas is Like", no "Thief's Theme", and that's before we start discussing album tracks (I'd personally have loved to have seen "Project Windows" make an appearance, and I know a lot of people will complain about the absence of "Ether"). But the compilers here have done an admirable job of boiling a remarkable career down to 12 tracks, and for that I applaud them.
It seems to me that the purpose of this album isn't to replace all previous Nas albums, like it is with some greatest hits records. After all, wouldn't that be an impossible task? Illmatic
already dominates Nas' catalogue and nothing will change that. The purpose here, then, is to remind anyone who's forgotten how good It Was Written
was, or how great the highlights of Stillmatic
were, that there's more to Nas' music than the one-shot classic he made his name with. And to that end, this does its job beautifully.
Then again, it could just be that they want to restore Nas' good name before he becomes 'that guy who released an album called ******
'. Job done either way.