from 10 Year Anniversary Illmatic Platinum Series (2008 reissue)
I watched the Nas installment of VH1’s revived Behind the Music tonight. I did that because Behind the Music, for a time, felt like a comprehensive, incisive look at an artist who’d earned a modicum of melodramatic weight. Not great, necessarily, but exciting. The show first launched when I was 15, and knew nothing. Last week, when I read that Nas’ episode was imminent, I was surprised that the poet laureate of Queensbridge, the idealized vision of hip-hop as literary pursuit, the scarecrow of the reducers, the aural firefighter, the school dropout, the Jesus-snuffer, whatever you want to pin on Nasir Jones, had never had his own episode. Historic beef. Champagne bottle-bashing. Alger-ian rise. Roman Empire hubris. Quasi-famous deadbeat dad. Noble, unfamous, dead mom. Green-haired wife. Five cycles of fame. Inescapable shadow of achievement. Still, no Behind the Music. For reference, the following artists have had their own episode: the Bay City Rollers, Bush, Blues Traveler, Paula Cole, Chris Gaines(!), Goo Goo Dolls, Nick Lachey, Nelly, Tony Orlando, Quiet Riot, Brian Setzer, and Smash Mouth. (There are more.)
I didn’t learn much watching Nas: Behind the Music, nor should I, I guess. Forty-three minutes for a person I’ve obsessed over is a burp in the dark. Still, while watching the mangled timeline of the Jay-Z feud, or marveling at his brother Jungle’s insights, or cramming to understand why Russell Simmons—a man who had almost no stake in Nas’ career—saw more airtime than Large Professor, I found myself falling deep into the music, that reeling, squeal-and-chop sonic collage that TV docs use to transition in and out of segments. Nas does this, forces obsession. He’s having a bit of a mini-moment right now, and this episode is a planned proposition, timed close to the release of the video for his new song, “The Don.” It’s probably the only reason his episode is happening now, thick with desperation for his new album. “Remember Nas? Legend!” Presumably, VH1’s producers have asked him before. But he’s a legacy act now and ought to be treated as such. Maybe he’s come to grips with that, fully.
But setting aside the machinery, years after the myriad failures (NaStradamus) and reclamations (NaStradamus), the overblown comebacks (Stillmatic) and the unclaimed near-masterpieces (God’s Son), the gambles (Hip-Hop is Dead) and the gambits (Untitled), there are dozens of great Nas songs to pore over. They come from all over: Disassembled Pre-Matic mixtapes, ungathered Lost Tapes 2 studio scraps, scattershot double albums, Nike commercial one-offs, and, um, the Bravehearts album. If It Was Written—largely considered an artistic letdown—was released today, it’d be the year’s best rap album. And last year’s too, probably. And I hate when people pull that nostalgic nah-neh-nah generational bullshit. Nas has been so surprisingly prolific while so dazed and disengaged, it’s hard to know who you’re going to get and when. Still, when “Represent” goes off, things come into focus. It’s perfect.
I’ve been on a Nas listening marathon since the night his “Behind The Music” episode aired and I think reading this is just going to make me double back when I’m “done” (I’m never “done” listening to Nas - ever).
It’s just that on this 2nd lap, I’ll include all the stray tracks that litter my iTunes folder. Getting through around 1200 Nas appearances should be fun.
Obsession is actually kinda fun. I should see about stalking a cute bitch too…