On Jay-Z’s “takeover,” one of the many vicious volleys in the ongoing Nas/Jay-Z battle, Jigga brutally sums up Nas’ back catalog, crediting him with “one hot album every ten years, average.” He’s got a point – aside from his classic 1994 debut, Illmatic, the Queens-bred rapper’s output has been uneven, to put it nicely. The fact that he invokes the name of his beloved first album with Stillmatic only makes the new disc’s shortcomings more pronounced.
Stillmatic, his fifth full-length, isn’t a complete washout. The Jay-Z beef has brought out the best in both MCs, and on “Ether” Nas lands some solid jabs, ridiculing Jay’s sparse mustache, tai-bo workouts and Hawaiian shirts. On “You’re Da Man,” Large Professor’s moody strings and spare boom-clap beat set the scene for some nightmarish introspection. “What Goes Around,” an inflamed indictment of evils ranging from TV and religion to poor parenting and plastic surgery, drives with knee-buckling intensity. Even “Got Ur Self a . . . ,” with its twinkly toy harpsichord and booming Sopranos-theme-song chorus, sounds fine after a few listens.
Sadly, the cuts that reveal Nas’ depth and drive get lost in a jumble of sloppy filler. The hyperbolic urgency of “One Mic” feels staged, the trick of backward storytelling on “Rewind” comes off gimmicky and rushed, and the cadence that Nas rocks on “Smokin’ ” sounds startlingly elementary. Striving to maintain street cred while reaching for pop success has left Nas vacillating clumsily on past projects, and this record is riddled with similar inconsistencies. One moment he casts himself as a gritty cat who feels most at home on a project bench, calling out neighborhood snakes (“Destroy and Rebuild”) and ducking gunshots (“One Mic”). The next, he’s delivering dumbed-down verses over the Track Masters’ rinky-dink rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
In the end, there’s little here to refute Jay-Z’s harsh assessment of his rival’s discography. “This is my ending and my new beginning,” Nas spits on the album’s intro. But for an artist who built his rep traversing breath-defying lyrical heights, Stillmatic’s by-the-books beats and rhymes don’t sound like the start of anything good.