In the final scene of 8 Mile, the rapper Eminem ("Bunny Rabbit" in the movie) silences his black opponent in a hip-hop battle by revealing that the kid went to Cranbrook—an arty Michigan prep school. Eminem, the movie suggests, is a true nigga—his tough-looking opponent is a black Vanilla Ice. What's phony about the ploy is that it allows Eminem to win the hip-hop crown by default—the black kid chokes. Which begs the question: What if the black kid didn't choke? How would Eminem do in a real, live onstage battle against a top black rapper who didn't choke? Someone, say, like Nas—the smart-as-a-whip New York City-born rapper who took the crown back from the West Coast with his 1994 debut Illmatic, and who has just released the third in his trilogy of terrific new rap records, The Lost Tapes.
I should say here that, back in 1994, the idea that Nas was the king of rap was a matter of local pride to many New Yorkers. After all, New York City had invented rap music—a genre that took brains and humor to master. At the time, to lose the rap crown to a rapper from Detroit—or, more to the point back then, Los Angeles—was widely understood to be impossible. Unfortunately, the West Coast then discovered Dr. Dre, the production genius who invented the sound of NWA (Niggas With Attitude) and then followed up that group's massive commercial success with the playful-yet-menacing bounce of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound. Arguably the single most influential producer of popular music in the world during the '90s, Dr. Dre has a supernatural ability to write (and steal) hooks and beats that are simple and catchy enough to power hit rap songs. Eminem may have Hollywood and Dr. Dre behind him—but he's still nowhere near as good as Nas.
Nas' quasi-legendary "lost tapes" are a collection of songs that he left off his last two most recent albums, I Am and Stillmatic. What makes Nas different from other gangsta rappers is his incredibly keen eye for detail; he wants to give his listener all the pleasures of Dre's and Eminem's style of sonic cartooning while also allowing room for more complicated and truthful emotions as well. "Just a baby nigga/ Thankful when them killers came through/ Guns out, moving,"Nas remembers. "I thank the ones who said 'shorty go home, we about to be shooting.' " Nas' ability to deal with his own vulnerability in such moments without being mawkish—or casting himself as the tough guy with the gun—is the source of most of his best rhymes. He has his own perspective on the violence—he's a storyteller.
The Lost Tapes is also a long-awaited step forward from an artist who was uniquely burdened by the success of his first record. Illmatic was a great record—so good that it's hard to imagine Nas ever making a better one. The perspective he chose then, and has essentially stuck to ever since, was startlingly original in rap; he wrote first-person rhymes in the voice of a young kid who was growing up in the projects, with his eyes wide open to the world of violence, drugs, and guns that West Coast rappers claimed to inhabit in life. The youthful persona he invented allowed the rapper to uphold the East Coast values of lyrical and narrative complexity while also being "realer" than the L.A. rappers on their favorite subjects—drug dealing and gang warfare. "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," he rapped. "I ain't the type of brother made for you to start testing."Nas could also flow better than any other rapper in New York—continuing a story or developing a character for minutes without losing the thread of his rhyme. (For one example of Nas' classic storytelling flow, click here.) On "Halftime," Nas wastes about a minute warming up to an easy ticktock beat, and then starts hitting the mic in the voice of a high-spirited, supremely confident 15-year-old, who is playfully toying with a rival—holding the microphone just out of his reach.
Even in his fun-loving verses—"I'm not your legal type of fella/ Moet-drinkin', marijuana-smokin' street dwella," Nas rhymes in one typically high-stepping verse, "Love committin' sins/ And my friends sell crack/ This nigga raps with a razor/ Keep it under my tongue"— an alert listener couldn't help but notice the well-honed vocabulary, the vivid imagery, and most of all, the fact that it was Nas'friends who sold crack in the lyric—not Nas himself. Here was a gangsta rapper who didn't feel the need to pose as a gangsta. He was a crime novelist—a black Elmore Leonard in rhyme.
The Lost Tapes isn't as good as Illmatic. But it's close enough. Nas still boasts with the best of them. "My features are that of a God/ It's not a façade/ It's a fact/ These rappers want to be Nas." What else can you ask for in a boast? And all this in a song whose chorus is busy referencing Ecclesiastes. "No idea's original/ There's nothing new under the sun/ It's never what you do/ But how it's done."
There's even a message here—a message that begins with a rejection of the materialism of his publicity-crazy rival Jay-Z. The usual way to do this would be through a cheap uplifting citation of Malcolm X or "Islam," but Nas has too much pride and originality for that. He thinks his audience is smart. They wouldn't buy the five-hundredth rapper to quote Malcolm X. So he breaks new ground by speaking the home truth about how most kids in the projects feel about the real-life gangstas who live in their neighborhoods:
The hood love you, but behind your back they pray for the day/ A bullet hit your heart/ And ambulance take you away/ That ain't love, it's hate/ Think of all the mothers who wait/ Whose sons you've killed/ And you ain't got a cut on your face?
Nas alone had the credibility to say this to his audience, and he said it; the death threats started months ago. Eminem is a pop star whose major market consists of suburban white males under the age of 14 (the rapper himself is pushing 30). So is Eminem fake? Is Nas real? Both are wealthy pop stars who live in multimillion-dollar homes, insulated by time, money, and heavy security from the troubles they write about. The difference between the two rappers isn't race or popularity—it's that Nas has figured out how to use his newfound distance from the street to improve his craft, while Eminem continues to act out his troubled trailer-trash persona for legions of fans who might be put off by the—let's face it—the blackness of rappers like Slick Rick, Biggie Smalls, and Nas, any one of whom would have cleaned the stage with rap's latest Elvis. That's not to say that Eminem isn't a pretty good rapper; he's no Vanilla Ice. But he still isn't Nas.