Gone is the poetic elegance of the streetwise New York emcee. Gone, too, are the late nights when my college buddy, Himieh, would call to ramble in his lisping Liberian accent about the latest work of Queensbridge rapper Nasir "Nas" Jones.
When I met Himieh in 1997 at the decidedly non-urban University of Kansas, he could barely believe that he'd found someone who loved Nas as much as he did. Himieh's parents worshipped Liberian soccer apostle George Weah, but in a testament to generational culture shifts, the smiling Himieh is a hip-hop guy. He favors Usher on his dress-up days, Mike Tyson on his hungover ones.
During and after college, we spent countless nights poring over Nas' releases—I Am..., Nastradamus, Stillmatic and The Lost Tapes. For both of us, Illmatic, released in 1994, was a sacred text, and subsequent albums were corollaries. Himieh would call me at all hours of the night, preaching to the previously converted about how Nas' rap repertoire was the best.
But in 2003, those calls began to dwindle, and I understood why: Just before Christmas of 2002, Nas issued God's Son. Himieh had begun to disregard Nas' new material as a bunch of street-poet rigmarole, lacking authentic New York street swing.
But Himieh didn't know that a young Durham producer named 9th Wonder had chased God's Son with an unofficial remix titled God's Stepson. The makeover was enough to make me fantasize that Nas would hear the project and return to the glossy boom-bap roots that had energized people around Illmatic. Maybe he would work with 9th Wonder. Maybe he'd do another project with Pete Rock or DJ Premier. A decade later, though, none of that has happened.
For the former faithful, Nas was the all-time liberator of beats, not the rapper who might own a small percentage of a professional basketball team or become a fashion mogul or a big-time label head. No, Nas was a writer, a rapper to inspire spoken-word poets and aspiring emcees alike, a hip-hop celebrity to model oneself after. In her essay "'It Ain't Hard to Tell': A Story of Lyrical Transcendence," Princeton University professor Imani Perry describes Illmatic as "ars poetica, a definitive statement for the art of hip-hop poetry." Nas wrote like a thinker, not a bankroller.
After the turn of the millennium, that was one takeaway from the feud between Nas the brains and Jay-Z the bank. One of hip-hop's nastiest battles, the quarrel fueled two righteous diss tracks ("The Takeover" and "Ether") and led to noticeable factions within hip-hop at large. The two subsequently squashed the beef, and Nas signed to Def Jam during Jay-Z's reign. The two even recorded a song, "Black Republicans," for Nas' 2006 Def Jam debut, Hip Hop Is Dead.
In the end, Jay-Z won that war: Hip Hop Is Dead surrounded Nas with an A-list of rap celebrities, including will.i.am, The Game and Snoop Dogg. He felt comfortable as one of them, not something better. This wasn't the brainy, brawny emcee that Himieh and I had worshiped.
During the last decade, Nas has either depended upon hackneyed political statements (the Untitled "Nigger" album, the "hip-hop is dead" mantra, the Distant Relatives project with Damian Marley) or broadcast his personal life on tracks. Last year's Life Is Good teased with the brilliant flashes of the emcee Himieh and I used to worship, especially on "Locomotive" and "Nasty."
But it was too little too late, or so I reckoned as Nas simply sat in his chair while Drake climbed the stage to accept the Grammy for Best Rap Album for Take Care. Nas lost in three other categories, too. There was a time when the hip-hop world seemed to be his, but this was the 13th time he'd been nominated for a Grammy and not walked away with a gold trophy. It could have been different. For a time, it was.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Nastalgia."