9/11/01 would have been ground-zero day for New York hiphop even if the Towers and everyone in them had survived. That's because that same Tuesday saw the release of Jay-Z's sixth album, The Blueprint. Though the self-described former drug boss of Brooklyn's Marcy Houses had dominated rap for years, he'd barely altered his style since 1998's Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. A close encounter with prison inspired Jay-Z to break with formula, and actually lead the genre he ruled.
Recorded while he was on trial (defendant Shawn Carter ended up admitting he stabbed his CD-bootlegging former associate and got three years' probation), The Blueprint was a challenge to everyone still doing hiphop-by-numbers. It was especially challenging to Nas and Mobb Deep, who?in the first major transgression of a de facto ban on name-naming disses since the murders of rhyme battlers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.?heard themselves roundly mocked on the album's second track, "Takeover." There's an entire verse about Mobb Deep and another about Nas in the song, which is paced to an agonizingly slow stomp sampled from the Doors' "Five to One."
Neither target was much of a threat to Jay-Z. Mobb Deep had taken some carping shots, but with only one platinum album, the duo is technically not in Jay-Z's league. And if his intention was to provoke the hardcore contingent that the Mobb represents, he wouldn't have bothered with Nas, who had long been regarded by crossover-conscious rap fans as the most egregious sellout in rap.
That's true of Nas only because he came on the scene as hardcore's golden child. Along with Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Mobb Deep all but invented 90s New York rap, back when the notion of an East Coast gangsta still meant Schoolly D or Kool G. Rap. Those three (proclaimed to be a triumvirate during Ghostface and Raekwon's guest verse on Mobb Deep's 1995 track "Right Back at You") designed the manner and style in which New York artists would address what Snoop and Dre had made rap's hottest topics: drugs and violence.
The full impact of 9/11 on New York hiphop can't be assessed without considering that earlier, paradigm-shifting blueprint. In the period 1984-1992, hiphop was part of the fabric of New York's artistic and intellectual life. All its stars except KRS-One came from solid, middle-class backgrounds. They invented ways of telling stories, and communicating ideas, that captivated all kinds of people. What happened in 1993-1995 is that those techniques were applied to a much narrower realm of focus. Their power was concentrated in a very intense beam, by artists equally talented yet much more singularly driven. This is what Jay-Z, even before "Takeover," sought to challenge.
If you read any of the reports on Al Qaeda recruitment tapes, or on the more propagandistic functions of Al-Jazeera, you know how Nas, Mobb Deep and Wu sounded to adults in 1994-'95. Journalists covering pro-terrorist video recognized its quick-cut editing, rhythmic pace and well-timed uses of background swells and special effects as a repurposing of the montage style of MTV. It's sickening to see it used to recruit suicide assassins. But, then again, it's a mistake to think it American. Montage-editing-as-mind-control is an innovation usually credited to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who used it to make Soviet propaganda during the 1920s. And, of course, commercials and movies all over the world use it now?though for advancing pretty much the same cause as MTV's. That and bin Laden together should be enough to convince anybody that these tools for effective modern drama are, like any technology, amoral.
Nas' heralded debut was an explosive, explicit rejection of the cultural assimilation of most previous hiphop. It foreshadowed rap's repudiation of all American values other than material. The kid from Queensbridge Houses was given one verse in the middle of a perfectly amiable new-school album (Main Source's 1991 Breaking Atoms; the song is "Live at the Barbecue"), and used it to say things like, "When I was 12/I went to Hell/For snuffing Jesus," "Nasty Nas is a rebel to America/Police murderer/Causin' hysteria" and the clincher, "Kidnap the President's wife without a plan/And hangin' niggas like the Ku Klux Klan." This was like N.W.A.'s mentality with De La Soul's imagination and Rakim's godly flow, and to Nas' teenage peers, who heard those groups as young children, it was a culmination.
The electricity buzzing around Nas' planned first album was amped up considerably when word of his backing-track team got out: Main Source's Large Professor, Gang Starr's DJ Premier, Pete Rock of the duo with C.L. Smooth and A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip. They?all franchise players in what was still a righteous-rap game in New York?made the music for 1994's Illmatic. This wasn't the hot-DJ opportunism we'd see later. In 1994, there appeared likely to be more money (and definitely more cultural rewards) in working with Arrested Development or Digable Planets. Rap's elders bestowed their blessings upon Nas because they recognized his greatness, as well as his searing connection with their core audience. Their torch-passing carried the message that hiphop's talent should be its guide. As the talent was in the projects, where the consensus young-male worldview was shaped by deprivation, miseducation, humiliation and official corruption, that meant rap was going to change.
Illmatic was the first great album (with the arguable exception of Black Moon's Enta Da Stage) on which credible street stories are told in first-person. Its beats pump invisible, practically intravenous scenery, fleshing out the psychological unmentionables of the narrator's violent tales. Literary, disciplined New York hiphop entered a world foreign to liberal humanism or even rationalism. It's no wonder Illmatic's release coincided with the demise of The Arsenio Hall Show, and the dawn of the marijuana leaf as a hiphop symbol. At the same time, most of New York's established rap acts broke up or disappeared. The poet-participants from the projects perfected their science by stripping it down to its essence. Hiphop was never anything but ghetto will-to-power, the thinking went, and Nas' was pure.
Illmatic didn't earn Dr. Dre figures, though. Nas hired Dre for help with his second album, and the results reeked of compromise. Next, he and Dre assembled The Firm, a second-rate version of Wu-Tang's "extended family" approach. By the mid-90s, hardly anyone begrudged their favorite rap star a few corny singles, but Nas' contrivances made for too sharp a contrast. His third and fourth albums also featured flashes of mic-controlling brilliance?like the Christmastime murder story "Shoot 'Em Up," produced by Mobb Deep's Havoc, off 1999's Nastradamus?that only made mercenary moves like partnering with Puff Daddy more of a disappointment. Nas' much-discussed failure to live up to his potential forms the crux of Jay-Z's "Takeover" verse about him, and you can bet it stung. With an album due in December 2001, he had to respond.
Same went for Mobb Deep, whose rep was built on retaliation drama. Like Nas, a former Queensbridge Houses neighbor of the duo's producer Havoc, Mobb Deep gave their December 2001 album a name that referred to their role in the ascent of hardcore. Nas' is Stillmatic. The Mobb went with Infamy, an atypically un-clever variation on their 1995 landmark title, The Infamous. That album remains the most intoxicating dose of distilled thug emotion. Its relentlessly vivid imagery of confrontation seeps under the skin like a cold burn, steeling the listener for his inevitable moment of truth. On Illmatic there was some acknowledgment that part of Nas' power was that of art?hoodlum or not, he was the heir to a tradition. Mobb Deep's Prodigy, on the other hand, was rarely praised for his dead-on flow or writing skills. The only power he claimed respect for was that of the gun. Mobb Deep was among the first crews to make the astonishing claim that the lives of people whose daily routines did not involve a fight for survival were not actually "real," like theirs. As Prodigy says in the bracing soliloquy that introduces "The Infamous," "It's all about who gets who first." Safe, bourgeois lives are phony?soulless.
Like a well-edited action score, Prodigy's unhurried vocals communicated the heroism in his life of action. Havoc's beats induced numb trances with pharmaceutical efficiency. For two more albums, Mobb Deep continued to ooze lurid threats and chanted provocations, like witch doctors warding off fearsome spirits. 1999's Murda Muzik, the duo's fourth album, was their first to go platinum, suggesting that their career was on a gradual upward slope. It featured the hit single "Quiet Storm," on which Prodigy rhymes about bringing his incorruptible ethos into boardrooms, and of building on a foundation of hardcore ruthlessness a better life for his children. In 2000, Prodigy even admitted he's an author, addressing young guns with the lines: "Could you feel the pain in the trilogy/Of my regiment?/Please do/We write these for you/With the hope that my words sink through/Like on the page, how the ink do." (That's from "Don't Be a Follower," off the Black and White soundtrack.) By the time Jay-Z made light of their embattled stance and their sales figures, Mobb Deep was already at the crossroads.
The reason "Takeover" doesn't include a verse about Wu-Tang Clan could be that Jay-Z respects the group's nine members, who found ways to make hardcore hiphop that transcended murderous nihilism. Another possibility is that the once-mighty Clan's reputation was so degraded already that further insults would have been unsporting. Both reasons point to the biggest difference between Wu on the one hand and Nas and Mobb Deep on the other: the nonet from Staten Island had a program for the future.
Not even for a second did they run hiphop, like they repeatedly promised they would. But Wu-Tang's strategic contributions to New York hardcore are what afforded it room to maneuver. More humanistic, yet even less rational or individualistic than their hardcore peers, they sought to reify Malcolm X's notion of "By Any Means Necessary." One hit rap album launched umpteen spinoff projects, the clothing line, unprecedented r&b collaborations (cf. Method Man and Mary J. Blige's prototypical, Grammy-winning 1994 thug-love song "I'll Be There for You (You're All I Need)") and the abstractly cinematic storytelling technique perfected on Raekwon's 1995 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Biggie ran with the pop-thug thing until he finally brought the sales crown back to New York, while Tupac adopted Hollywood's idea of a good yarn to the extent that his legend and biography merged completely. Maybe part of the reason those two are most revered by hiphop kids is that Biggie and Tupac will never have to figure out what to do with the cultural power they achieved. They're permanent icons of self-determination, yet undetermined. Wu-Tang, in contrast, survives, alternatively thriving and muddling along, neither very spectacularly.
By the late 90s, New York hiphop so severely lacked direction that an obviously talentless opportunist, Puff Daddy, was temporarily able to assume leadership. Jay-Z stepped very purposefully into the void. Possessing a decent enough pen and voice, he decided all he required for a takeover was excellent business sense, startup funds and unlimited audacity. He was right. Jay-Z knew from the start what Nas discovered, Mobb Deep was learning and seemed to be the only concrete thing Wu-Tang Clan showed: capitalism trumps all. In other words, if you want your success in hiphop to be construed as an act of protest against America or anything else, you're nothing but a sore winner. It's telling that Jay-Z threw down the gauntlet with a song full of jokes, not snarling promises. In Blueprint's triumphant first single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," he says (echoing Outkast's visionary 1996 song "Elevators"): "I do this for my culture/To let 'em know/What a nigga look like/When a nigga in a roaster." He's the sort of pauper-turned-king who favors his subjects with encouragement and fun. By naming Mobb Deep and Nas, Jay-Z poo-pooed hardcore's sense of apocalyptic purpose.
Wu-Tang's December 2001 release, Iron Flag, is their most crowd-pleasing album since their 1993 debut. The group's major theme has always been complexity. Even in the do-or-die context of a street-war song, for Wu-Tang there are angles, and they'll show you several. A Wu-Tang album is an amalgamation of perspectives, always cacophonous, that either works or doesn't. In that way, they're particularly American. Yet, as hiphop purists, they stand for the underdog nonconformity that this country rarely respects. On the old, complacent hiphop nation Wu-Tang dropped the dub-influenced and difficult The W. For this trying time, the contrarian crew endorses Jay-Z's platform, yet stops short of rubber-stamping his priorities. Only heartfelt music fueled by complex motivations, suggests Iron Flag, can open doors to places listeners didn't knew existed.
The album hits extremely hard at the opening?but only if you hear its first track, "In the Hood," while walking in New York. A militaristic stomp with lyrics about how little ghettos have changed, it includes in its mix the sound of a fire engine blaring its horn and siren. Through a discman on a Manhattan avenue, it sounds like an FDNY truck is right behind you, roaring with abandon at top speed, stopping for nothing. It's a city sound, a 9/11 sound and here a hiphop sound, and when you march along with it and the locally patriotic Wu-Tang Army, well, Ghostface says it best on "Rules," the very next track: "Mr. Bush sit down/I'm in charge of the war!" The jolting momentum sparked by these lightning-flash statements of purpose carries a listener almost all the way to the end of Iron Flag?also Wu-Tang's most upbeat and immediate album since their first.
Mobb Deep's Infamy, on the other hand, is a disappointment, lacking the resonance of their previous work. The latest news on them was that Havoc wrestled with a drinking problem while Prodigy, who suffers from sickle-cell anemia, adopted a strict vegetarian diet to help control its symptoms. The former augmented his own production work with tracks by outside producers, but he didn't accept anything that doesn't sound a lot like his own music. Prodigy directs some moderately unnerving threats at Jay-Z, but he sounds more in his element rapping about eating broccoli for breakfast on "Nothing Like Home."
It's awful to hear these two champions going through the motions. The ritualistic consistency that in '99 seemed to be naturally evolving into Mobb Deep's own brand of hardened maturity falls flat in the altered landscape. "Clap," "Crawlin" and "The Learning (Burn)" demonstrate that Havoc, too, has directions left to explore. But as a result of not adapting, on the mic and as a track-buying exec, the 5-foot-2-inch artist sounds, for the first time, small. As few listeners will find themselves disgusted by the routines of Infamy as enraptured. The canvas Mobb Deep projects on is dried out and cracked.
And as for Nas: Stillmatic was the best-selling album by a rap veteran over Christmas week, while his acrid "Ether" was voted by urban radio listeners (in more than one city) the decisive blow in his battle with Jay-Z. The album is Nas' long-awaited return to the fundamentals of flow. He still revs more lyrical rpm's than anyone. Few others could bring enough vocal excitement to match the melodrama of Nas' own track for "One Mic," and his Memento-style backwards-told story, complete with a murderous twist at the end (beginning), is something no one else could have pulled off. Even Trackmasters' sample of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"?seeming fodder for a typical album-marring Nas cheesefest?is saved by a formidable breakbeat and the star's unforced style. Although "Ether" isn't funny like Jay-Z's "Unplugged" performance of "Takeover," and Stillmatic shows Nas' worldview is childish compared to Wu-Tang's, it's tough to question the street verdict on this one. Nas can etch wonders with hiphop's razor-edged tools.
The last few songs on Stillmatic convey his reaction to the war. In an interlude before "My Country," he makes the statement that "What this war just showed me is, like, whatever you feel is rightfully yours, go out and take it, even if it means blood and death." The song's refrain repudiates the optimism of Jay-Z's "Izzo": "My Country shitted on me/She wants to get rid of me/We know too much..." Guest Millennium Thug spits a vision of New York in rubble. In the outtro of "My Country," Nas dedicates it to Martin, Malcolm and other leaders "just trying to fight for what's real." On the blazing "What Goes Around," Nas expresses the jihad-sympathizing point of view suggested by its title. The song ends with the cryptic couplet: "What is destined shall be/George Bush killer 'til George Bush kills me." War imagery and all, Nas could have made this extremely intense album right after Illmatic. To fully enjoy it, one almost has to pretend he spent the last seven years in suspended animation.
Because, coming as it does from the guy who abandoned hardcore's doomed mission for the mainstream's cash, Stillmatic is complete bullshit. Or else hardcore was never anything but an illusion?born of talent, tools and a seductive false agenda?that millions of young Americans yearn to be fooled by. Either way, it's creepy the way Nas is thriving off of hiphop's lack of memory, dazzling, again, with the image of a starving young warrior?which he is not?"without a plan"?which, as a leader, he has no right to remain. If his second hiphop reign lasts, some rough lessons might have to be learned all over again.
In December, Jay-Z sought to end his feud with Nas, citing a strong advisory from his mother, who quite reasonably doesn't want to see another rhyme battle get out of hand. Fresh from his re-coronation, Nas replied in a story on the battle that appeared in the "Sunday Styles" section of the Jan. 6 New York Times. Jay-Z declined to comment for the piece.
"That was really un-hip-hop the way he handled it," Nas told fashion-conscious Times readers.