There are two things that have always been true: Nas is a great emcee—and one of the greatest writers in any form or medium—and he has a terrible ear for beats.
Before chucking Stillmatic vinyl through my windows, though, it's important to point out that not every Nas record has employed forgettable production. I look at Nas’ beat selection in much the same way I view (the original) Isiah Thomas' stint as an NBA General Manager for the NY Knicks; sometimes he picked a Tracy McGrady-level beat (“Made You Look,” “N.Y. State of Mind”), others were a solid Trevor Ariza (“Rule,” “Daughters”), but most of the time he was selecting Renaldo Balkmans (“My Country,” “America,” “Blunt Ashes,” 80 percent of Street’s Disciple).
My experience with Nas, for a long time, felt torturous. Listening to albums like Nastradamus, Hip-Hop Is Dead and Street’s Disciple, projects packed with the dense and impressionable storytelling and lyricism that helped to further elevate the Queensbridge emcee above the field, were mostly inconsistent and largely forgettable experiences. Nastradamus’ production, in particular, sounded like a Canal Street copy of the worst Ja Rule album.
I felt vindicated when I removed roughly half, if not more, of his catalog from my memory, acting as if a record like “K-I-SS-I-N-G” was just a song that I created in my own head during nightmares of Nas’ acting in Belly. Looking back, though, I was missing the point.
We often treat our favorite artists as perfect beings, even when they are far from it. We picture our perfect rapper and imagine a flawless cadence, mind-blowing lyrics, intense subject matter and immaculate production behind them. That's all a fantasy, though. When we judge even our most beloved, sacred artists with such strict criteria, we ultimately miss the beauty of imperfection.
What was it about Nas’ taste in production that made me feel like I couldn’t still find something to learn or appreciate? I was never able to come up with an answer.
Behind that reluctance to accept his imperfections, I found nothing but boredom and a separation between artist and listener. For example, I couldn’t appreciate the perfection of “Made You Look” on God’s Son because I never bothered to trace back the missteps that Nas made on Stillmatic and Nastradamus. However, what we can ultimately find in the imperfections of even the greatest rappers are progress and lessons. Much like ourselves, even the biggest flaw is a useful tool, not only for understanding what we have left to work on but also in hopes that it will be mastered to the best of abilities.
For me, that underlying, devalued appreciation didn't stop with Nas. He was merely the catalyst for the reflection my own ignorance.
I think of other legendary rappers in this same context. Kendrick Lamar has come as close to perfecting his craft as humanly possible, but then I remember that my appreciation for him doesn’t stem from the idea that I think he’s perfect, but from the enjoyment and elation I experience in watching him continually improve his craft.
At the beginning of his career, Kendrick’s biggest flaw was his ability to consistently write a great hook, and while this shortcoming has arguably never been a distraction, there are moments on both Overly Dedicated and Section.80 that felt disjointed because of it. For every “HiiiPoWeR,” there is a “Tammy’s Song (Her Evils).” Through all of the dazzling complexities of a song like “Rigamortus,” the ideas and structure of the hook felt chaotic and never fully realized. It was like being on a roller coaster seat that, by the end of the ride, was no longer attached.
Through that, though, Kendrick developed and recognized his biggest area for improvement. He narrowed the focus of his ideas, and on his debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, he delivered songs like “Money Trees” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which feature hooks that not only complement the narratives but also served to heighten them. As a listener, what we received was the full scope of how a flaw is only the starting block in a marathon of progression.
Imperfections exist beyond technical ability, too. Take Tupac and the duality of his persona within music versus his real-life warts. As fellow DJBooth scribe Austin Williams pointed out earlier this year, Tupac’s misogyny towards women was always a contradiction within itself. One of the greatest artistic minds of the last 30 years was seemingly unable to withdraw himself from being a part of truly abhorrent moments with various women in his life. With an artist like Tupac, the appreciation we have for his artistry never came in his worst moments, but rather when he rose above the unfortunate choices he made before and after. His moral imperfections as a man and the contradictory nature of his role as a leader of hip-hop culture left us with a greater appreciation any time he did find peace within himself. We shouldn't ignore Tupac’s mistakes because they allowed us to appreciate what it looks like to grow and become a better man.
Beyond moral imperfection, it's equally important to have a greater appreciation for the humanity of our favorite artists. Just look at Kanye West. Kanye’s most glaring imperfection has been, ironically, his pursuit of perfection. His fan base, by and large, will pronounce his greatness by citing the contradiction that exists between Kanye the artist and Kanye the man. His Achilles heel as a hot-tempered, erratic and often-misguided individual is, at times, the greatest reflection of the best and worst characteristics of a truly passionate and creative individual.
Appreciating an artist like Kanye means understanding that his greatest flaws are often the same feelings of insecurity and self-doubt that each of us deals with on a daily basis. Of course, the difference between us is that we rarely encounter our self-reflection in musical form. We can hate and love Kanye in the same way that we often hate and love ourselves for our greatest successes and failures. We refuse to let him off the hook for acts of rampant misogyny and delusions of grandeur much in the same way we learn to hold ourselves morally accountable. Ignoring the imperfection of Kanye’s music, and to knowingly categorize his creations as perfect, is a refusal to appreciate the complexities of human emotion, even if they are many times wrong and uncomfortable.
The Achilles heel of our favorite rappers—whether artistic or moral—are often qualities reflected within ourselves. Being able to appreciate their greatest flaws means being able to understand and contextualize their music at a higher level. Once I recognized that his biggest flaw was only a benchmark that could help me further appreciate the beauty in his strengths, listening to Nas' catalog became a whole new experience.
Imperfection is important. It's our blueprint for progress.