'No ideas original' Nas, prod. Large Professor (2012)

Recognised for his achievement, within the academy - Nas was awarded the W.E.B. DuBois Medal, Harvard University's highest honour in the field of African and African-American Studies last year, the first hip-hop artist to receive this award (he later tweeted: 'Historic night for the rap game') and outside of it, by fans and critics alike.

Arguably the most important, most influential MC, since the release of Illmatic when he was just 20 years-old back in 1994 in an international sense; especially here in France, where fans often bring up his name as the key point of reference. 

Critics lauded Nas's sharp evocation of growing up in New York's Queensbridge, in his words: 

[W]hen my rap generation started, it was about bringing you inside my apartment. It wasn’t about being a rap star; it was about anything other than. I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like. What the cops talk like, walk like, think like. What crackheads do — I wanted you to smell it, feel it. It was important to me that I told the story that way because I thought that it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t tell it. I thought this was a great point in time in the 1990s in [New York City] that needed to be documented and my life needed to be told.

The producers working on Illmatic read like a roll-call of the era's greats (Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip ...) and their achievement has been recognised a key marker of the record's success, where the under-stated, seamless production exists like a character that creates a bridge between the past and present, as Pitchfork's Jeff Weiss writes: 

The loops rummage through their parent’s collection: Donald Byrd, Joe Chambers, Ahmad Jamal, Parliament, Michael Jackson. Nas invites his rolling stone father, Olu Dara to blow the trumpet coda on “Life’s a Bitch”. Jazz rap fusion had been done well prior, but rarely with such subtlety. Nas didn’t need to make the connection explicit—he allowed you to understand what jazz was like the first time your parents and grandparents heard it.

Echt-New York producer, Large Professor took control on three tracks on Illmatic ('One time 4 your mind', 'It ain't hard to tell' and that slice of pure heaven, 'Halftime'). The choice is mine: I could spend time, a lot of time riffing on the wonders of this record - as have so many, many, many, many others before me - and their collaboration, all the while stealing most of my content from Wikipedia in the process ... (ah, no ideas original indeed). 

But I'll let Large Professor describe the value of the work, as he does in this video - especially like the way he powerfully evokes how the record was similar to a 'musical painting of the streets ...'   

While recognising the intelligence of Nas's rhymes - I mean you'd have to be deaf or deficient not to - what hits me whenever I listen to his music is the sincere tone of his delivery, a quality that links him to other NY emcees from that era, who also met much international success (Prodigy for starters).

Nas's signature tone doesn't change very much, and hasn't since. It's always in the same key that values being straight-up, telling us how it is, without self-conscious wordplay, or irony or theatrical flourishes and monster voices (but with that amazing capacity to put language together that is, of course, highly 'contrived' or crafted and super-clever). Thanks once more, friends at Wikipedia:

I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners
Hennessy holders and old school niggas, then I be dissin a
Unofficial that smoke woolie thai
I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie
Jungle survivor, fuck who’s the liver
My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer
Sentence begins indented, with formality
My duration’s infinite, money-wise or physiology
Poetry, that’s a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Chocolate blunts made me see him drop in my weed smoke
— Nas, "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"

Keeping all of this in mind, his collaborations with Large Professor make sense, in that Large Pro is a producer with such a talent for keeping it simple (while always displaying total control and technique). This is the key contradiction - for want of a better word, as I don't actually thing it should be in opposition, complex simplicity is a quality to be treasured - that interests me about hip-hop. I like the fact that at its heart the hip-hop genre is a confidence game, playing with notions of authenticity and deception; putting forward music that appears to be original, but isn't; or a kind of perfect 'product' - an object - made up of musical scraps (hiding out in the bright shadows, nameless).

Perhaps for this reason the hip-hop music I like best, the music that draws me in within a few seconds, always seems to be playing with these notions: simple, basic, pared-down, but highly artful - or the more extreme Gothic strains, more on this soon - rather than the music/production that shows its learning too much. (With a few exceptions of course to keep it fresh).     

Take this track, released on an album of remixes. For me the sweetest beat, with the modest movement between the different elements that allows Nas to hold forth in his declamatory style, as is his wont to do. The contrasting elements, the potential for symphonic momentum is kept in the background to allow the MC to take centre stage. 

The gentle pitter-pat of the beat is perfectly balanced by the slight static and the final splash, but again it is extremely controlled and under-stated; a slight 'ting' comes in and then a very mild whoosh, but they're just put out there, not over-played as might be the case with more bombastic types. Just under one minute in there's another element, which provides the symphonic feel but again it's just held there, as if the producer understands that there is no need to draw attention to it, just it being part of the mix is enough.

Sometimes the use of the elements is increased, they are repeated more often, but without the over-stated logic (to emphasise a key moment in the MC's spiel, with one notable exception at the end) and this makes the music feel playful, as if there is a chance of the elements coming in at their own accord, it adds a sweet energy to it all. 

I could break it down here: find each time certain elements were used to provide emphasis, maybe to build the verbs or something else, as when listening I can see that there is a kind of design behind it, but it's subtle enough for this to work on an almost subliminal level. We sense it. 

So to the exception, where the producer holds back to provide stark emphasis is just before 2 minutes 30 (re the 'headline of the rapper slain') where the symphonic strings become the dominant element, amping up the melancholy aspect - something repeated in the production of this track by Supastition ... 

The contrasting production style here reflects the essential difference between the two MCs, the social commentary poetics of Nas as compared to the explicit story-telling instincts of Supastition. But rather than welling in the beautiful sound of the strings, indulging in it, opening it up, Large Professor keeps this moment - his producer's trick - to the very end. Within a few seconds the music comes to a sudden, even shocking end, displacing us.

Three minutes or less: total class.  

(Now listening to the Nas/Large Professor track, after how many times previously ... what strikes me now is this: the music sounds like the noise of cicadas).