“Back when I was young there was massive niggas, but I past them niggas just being nasty nigga.” If you read that line without context, it’s ostensibly unremarkable. If you remember when Nasir still had the “Nasty” in front of his name, it’s both a commentary on greatness and rap history. By the time Nas first broke on “Live at the BBQ,” hip hop was already past it’s first era that people thought couldn’t be topped. How could you be better than G Rap or Slick Rick or Shan or Rakim or Kane? Their shadows were everywhere, but Nas became one of the greatest by just being nasty. He paid homage, but held nothing sacred. He understood that his idols were mortals. He believed that he could eclipse them. He did.
This has always been my problem with J Cole. He’s too reverent and obsessed with homage. I reviewed Born Sinner for MTV Hive under the absurd auspices of an Alice in Wonderland theme. The point was to hopefully have more fun writing about the album than it was to listen to it, but also to point out that if Cole is going to become great, he’s going to have to have to stop regarding his heroes as Gods. There’s no excuse to loop “Mystic Brew” and “Art of Storytelling” on your commercial album. Your first words on the record can’t be comparing yourself to Jay-Z and then stealing the hook from “Juicy.” You have to find your own sound and voice. There are very good moments on his records, but ultimately, you can’t be so worried about letting Nas down.
Thankfully, Nas ignored the passive aggressive talking sideways tones of “Let Nas Down,” to do his own remix. Cole wisely steers clear of the track and lets Nasir tell his story of a kid coming up in Queensbridge: mastering the hobby that he picked up in the lobby, wearing fatigues and army hats, heartburn from Hennessey. He throws shade at Nature and Cormega (maybe) for wanting his co-sign, but never letting him executive produce their records. He breaks down the game, the commercial pressures, his desire to surpass his heroes. He also writes lines line: ” The Earth spins, my Old Earth/ Annotate grin, sung a church hymn/She birthed in September, took my first wind, again, the Earth spins.” Meanwhile the horns from Fela’s “Gentleman” blare.
It’s rare when a song gives me the chills. This one makes me root for Cole to one day get to that level, but more than that, it’s just good advice for anyone trying to create. If you say what’s on your mind, you can stand the test of time. Be honest and take risks. Don’t compromise your words or ideas. Nothing’s new under the sun, but that’s no excuse not to keep searching.
MP3: J Cole ft. Nas – “Let Nas Down Remix”