Zilla Rocca was born in the 80s, pops drive a Mercedes.
When a man turns 30 years old, he realizes finally what he is and what he isn’t. Turning 30 gives a sense of finality–all of the noodling and meandering of your 20s is over. You stop trying and settle into what you know fits you. You finally have a bit of wisdom, having knowledge and knowing how to apply it to yourself. You can date girls who are 24 or 34. You become nostalgic as culture recycles itself from 20 years ago, and hey, you were entering your first decade back then. 30 is the sweet spot. Nas turned 30 back in 2004, and all of the characteristics I listed above ring loud and clear on his disjointed, misguided, and occasionally incredible double album Street’s Disciple.
Street’s Disciple is the one Nas album that has no story behind it. Illmatic is Illmatic. It Was Written is “not Illmatic.” I Am had “Nas is Like” and Puffy teeing off on Steve Stoute’s head with a bottle of Moet. We were programmed to hate Nastradamus upon arrival (yet it sold over a mill regardless–go revisit it now). Stillmatic was Nas’s Mama Said Knock You Out. God’s Son is the monument to his mom, the True Crime stories of NY beefs between Jay, Biggie, and Wu, and the home of the greatest Nas single ever (“Made You Look”). Hip Hop is Dead was the original trending topic. Untitled is his political misstep. And Life is Good is Life after Kelis.
And then there’s Street’s Disciple. It’s “The Double Album.” It has the song with his dad, and “Thief’s Theme.” And that’s all people would remember about it. But when I revisited this album, I realized that “Street’s Disciple” is Nas easing into turning 30. The album is titled after his first lyric on wax. The hook for “Thief’s Theme” borrows lyrics from “The World is Yours.” “Disciple” flips a classic Kool G Rap sample. “You Know My Style” is a repurposed Run-DMC song. Q-Tip oddly is called in to flip “Atomic Dog” for “American Way.” This album is about Nas looking backwards.
I pared it down to a scant 14 songs from an unnecessary 25 tracks. The 14 songs I picked relfect a man turning 30, looking back on his life, realizing what he’s great at and leaving everything else behind. Here’s the newly arranged album:
Track 1: “Street’s Disciple” produced by Salaam Remi
Taking its main sample from Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “The Child Needs its Father,” this eerie Salaam Remi banger sets the tone for the entire album. Nas flexes his storytelling muscles, looking back on pretty crack addicts from the ’80s, from Ewings to viewings, mimicking Mike Tyson in his heyday, when Ill Will would hear neighborhood shark biters and alert the Nasty kid. Olu Dara is the Lou Rawls of “Lifetime Monologue,” watching his child grow up with promise and potential amongst animals. “It’s like my ghost is still on the benches, surrounded by villains and henchmen, was a killer convention.”
Track 2: “Thief’s Theme” produced by Salaam Remi
Originally, this song was number #24 of 25, a decision I could never comprehend on the retail version. “Thief’s Theme” was the first single, a follow-up to the formula of “Made U Look.” It’s an ode to robberies, and Nas blatantly signals it as a “song speaking on my old life”: Woolrich, Carhart, gun powder stains. More famously known as the song he flipped again for “Hip Hop is Dead,” because . . . I just don’t know why he did that. Anyway, “Thief’s Theme” has one of the most horrifically visual lyrics I’ve ever heard: “Deaf crack fiends who can’t speak scream noises, ’cause she bought a jum of soap from one of my boys.” Think about ripping off a deaf crackhead. This song is dark as fuck.
Track 3: “Star Wars” produced by Large Professor
“Star Wars” talks about the climate of rap in the early 2000’s, when beef was a viable marketing plan, and how street beef and industry beef weren’t easily identified. Produced by Large Professor, and tossed on the 10th Anniversary Platinum Edition of Illmatic in 2004, “Star Wars” is too great to be wasted on a reissue bonus disc. The hook is a callback to Marley Marl, and the rhymes fit the aesthetic of Street’s Disciple: yearning for youth but understanding today. “Like I was brought up off that Planet Rock, Kurtis Blow, James Todd Smith, Shan, and Scott, LaRock in the jams, why would they fuck with the don, Jehovah witness he and his co-defendants, I eat ’em like Lucky Charms.”
Track 4: “Disciple” produced by L.E.S.
“This ain’t 50, this ain’t Jigga, this ain’t Diddy, this ain’t pretty.” Built off a well known Billy Joel sample used by De La Soul, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, and the Cold Crush Brothers, “Disciple” is another ’80s homage and some straight classic Queens shit.
Track 5: “Sekou Story” produced by Salaam Remi
“Sekou Story” has 2 parts: Nas telling an ill crime story over “Sport” by Lightning Rod, and Nas playing a woman named “Scarlett” over a reggae-inspired beat. This song sums up of what Nas giveth and Nas taketh away–the storytelling on the first half is flawless over a beat no one could ever sound corny on, but the second half just barely stays in rotation because Nas decided to play a woman. He did so in full on the next song “Live Now” from the retail version. I cut “Live Now” because you have to save Nas from himself.
Track 6: “Nazareth Savage” produced by Salaam Remi
“Sekou Story” is about Nas being called in to get revenge on a slain underworld figure, so that brings us to the most vicious resolution: “Nazareth Savage.” This song sounds like punishment, and it’s lyrically one of the top 10 “Nas Goes All the Way In” songs of all time. “Son’s back with flows, they say mines is very scary, smell fear like the canines that find buried babies, and all of y’all wear that same aroma, how to blow on your 8th LP I’ll show ya.”
Track 7: “You Know My Style” produced by Salaam Remi
2004 was the height of Lil John production, who was inspired by Rick Rubin and Larry Smith’s minimal 808 steez, hence Nas sneaking a curveball onto daytime radio. “You Know My Style” was the b-side to “Thief’s Theme” and gets us into the 1980’s suite of the record. This is the kind of single Nas should be making exclusively: repurposing jeep knock’ blammers from the old school, in this case Run-DMC’s “Jam Master Jay.” There was nothing calculated about “You Know My Style”–it sounds great today because it’s true to the era Nas followed.
Track 8: “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)” produced by Nas
Another cornerstone of the retail version, “U.B.R.” puts Nas in pure fanboy mode. He hooked up the beat like Rakim did for “Microphone Fiend” and wrote the first ever biography of The 18th Letter. Again, Nas is looking backwards to a man who inspired him. My favorite part is that in a pre-Wikipedia age, Nas remembered all of the significant events, on and off record, with clear poignancy of Ra, and then when he breaks down Rakim’s discography, he says “Droped The R, then The 18th Letter, then . . . I think something . . . The Master.”
Track 9: “Virgo” featuring Doug E. Fresh & Ludacris produced by Salaam Remi
Doug E. Fresh on the beat box, Nas and Luda doing their best Slick Rick impressions: I don’t know how you can be over 30 years old and not love the fact that this song exists. This is the end of the 1980’s suite of the album, where you got Run-DMC, Rakim, and Get Fresh Crew homages in a row from one of the greatest MC’s ever. This is why Street’s Disciple needed to be rearranged.
Track 10: “Remember the Times” produced by L.E.S.
Like G Rap before him and Action Bronson after him, “Remember the Times” highlights one of Nas’s greatest skills as a Queens cat: being unbelievably vulgar and explicit about sex. The lyrics actually make me recoil in horror, as Nas recounts all of the ways he’s been defiling women for two decades. And then, he matter of factly uses this perverted list to prove to his then fiance Kelis that he has done some barely legal freaky shit, but none of it as good as the stuff the do together. This song makes me realize that Nas and Kelis’s sex life was probably the real life “Stapleton Sex.”
Track 11: “Bridging the Gap” featuring Olu Dara produced by Salaam Remi
Outside of Olu playing the horns on “Life’s a Bitch” and channeling Lou Rawls on the title cut, it’s hard to not be somewhat corny while “bridging the gap from the blues to jazz to rap.” But I still get the goosebumps hearing a rapper joyously going back and forth with his dad on a song because outside of Common’s “Pops Raps” series, dads get no love in rap.
Track 12: “War” featuring Keon Bryce produced by Salaam Remi
This song is a great example of Nas learning his limits at 30: he didn’t sing the hook on “War.” I was never a fan of his TJ Swann hooks, and thankfully Keon Bryce steps in to interpolate Little Anthony & The Imperials. Nas gets excited about his new life with Kelis on the first verse, then gets nostalgic about the birth of his daughter Destiny on the second verse. He also remembers that his baby mom needed to get yanked by her weave for disrespcting him during that time. He regrets having sex with her, but loves his daughter and how well she and Kelis get along. Nas isn’t the most sentimental guy on this song.
Track 13 & 14: “Intro/Message to the Feds, Sincerely We the People” produced by Chucky Thompson, Salaam Remi and L.E.S.
“The Hitchcock of hip hop since Big, Pac departed.” Check mate.
So there you have it–a lean, raw, grown up rap album. The retail version packages every single idea Nas had during the Street’s Disciple sessions, and that was the problem: cheesy R&B songs, painful collabos, and forced moments to make the album feel like an “event.” Street’s Disciple is not an event, it’s a love letter to the world of New York and hip hop Nas grew up on, where people got pushed on the train tracks, and Eric B & Rakim were recording “My Melody” just up the block in Queensbridge.