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Call It A Comeback? 'Stillmatic' at 20

quotes
People always ask me, 'Is S'tillmatic' gonna be like 'Illmatic'?' And my answer is 'When I made 'Illmatic,' I was a little kid in Queensbridge, trapped in the ghetto. My soul was trapped in Queensbridge projects."

- Nas, 2001 (MTV)

Any Hip-Hop fan worth their salt knows the story that led up to the release of the fifth album from Nasir Jones. He'd closed the 1990s on a downturn, with his career limping into Y2K. He'd started the 1990s as the "next Rakim," but after dropping one of the rap game's most celebrated debuts ever, and following it with a platinum-selling mafioso classic, Nas looked to be flailing creatively. Flossy ambitions and leaked albums seemed to subvert the promise that he'd shown early on; Nas suddenly looked like he was chasing the emcees who'd emerged in his wake; ballerific icons like The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z had laid claim to "King of NY" as if Nas was just an afterthought.

By 2001, Biggie had tragically passed on and Jay-Z was riding high. And he and Nas had a tenuous relationship going back several years. On his sophomore album, It Was Written, Nas had made a somewhat pointed reference to Jay-Z on the track "The Message." When Nas rapped "Lexus with TV sets the minimum." The Brooklyn emcee was known for his love of Lexuses. "I saw Jay-Z driving a Lexus with the TVs in them," Nas would tell Complex years later. "I got rid of my Lexus at that point and I was looking for the next best thing. It wasn’t a shot at Jay but it was just saying that’s the minimum you gotta have. It’s not a shot at him but he inspired that line. It wasn’t necessarily a shot at him but because the song was a shot at everybody, he fell into that. But he definitely inspired that line."

B.I.G.'s March 1997 murder seemed to exacerbate things. As Jay-Z eagerly laid claim to Biggie Smalls' now-vacated thrown, it felt to many fans and commentators that he was stepping over Nas. And bad blood between Jay's protege Memphis Bleek and Nas furthered the rift. Things came to a head at 2001 Summer Jam, when Jay-Z famously freestyled a diss aimed at Nas and fellow Queensbridge stars Mobb Deep.

quotes
Went from Nasty Nas to Esco's trash/ Had a spark when you started but now you're just garbage/ Fell from top ten to not mentioned at all/ To your bodyguard's Oochie Wally's verse better than yours/ Matter of fact you had the worst flow on the whole entire song..."

- Jay-Z, ("Takeover")

In a 2001 interview with FELON magazine, Nas called out Jay for comments he said Jay had made at an industry party the year before.

“We were kickin’ it and he told me that he’s better than Biggie now,” Nas said in the FELON interview. "I looked at him like he was crazy. Then, he started telling me Memphis Bleek was a fan and that I shouldn’t go at him. He predicted that Beanie Sigel would never sell more than 600,000 copies. He said that Sauce Money was to him what Nature was to me. Then, he really got crazy. He said that Tupac and DMX were not lyricists—they just had the hungry, starving street niggas coppin’ their shit—but me and him had all the money niggas buying ours. I told him that I disagreed with him—that Tupac was the greatest ever—period, and that DMX really brought that street shit back into the game.”

Nas made no secret about his animosity towards Jay-Z and things famously came to a head after The Blueprint and Jay's vicious diss track "Takeover," on which he aimed squarely at Nas and Mobb Deep. But Nas thought long and hard about going at Jay. He even sought advice from one of the most celebrated rappers of all time: none other than Rakim.

"I was like ‘Look, G. If you wanna battle Jay-Z, you gotta do it ’cause you wanna do it," Rakim recalled he told Nas in 2001. "Not because I say you should do it, not ’cause Chuck said you should do it, not ’cause anybody said you should do it. Sometimes even you gotta mute your fans, ’cause fans, they wanna see some…but, you gotta do what you feel.’ I told him ‘Look, if that’s something that you feel, if that’s something that you want to do, that’s your decision. You can’t let nobody else make that decision for you.'”

Nas would, of course, come at Jay-Z with both barrels. He unleashed "Ether," a diss track that not only equaled "Takeover," it immediately launched itself into the upper echelon of rap's most famous diss songs. "In '88, you was gettin' chased to your buildin'," Nas raps on the track. "Callin' my crib, and I ain't even give you my numbers/ All I did was give you a style for you to run with." One of the most famous beefs in rap history was in full effect; but most importantly, it gave notice that Nas was back to being Nas. And his fifth album was going to answer any doubters.

"Ether" made everyone stop in their tracks, but Stillmatic was always more than that classic diss track.

The Megahertz-produced lead single "Got Urself A..." was the first shot, a battle cry that interpolates the famous theme of The Sopranos as Nas makes it clear that he is not playing games this time around. Released in early December 2001, it made sure that anyone who was paying attention knew that this was a rejuvenated Nasir Jones. It's not a song that sounds intended to "cross over," it's anthem that draws you in without trying too hard. One of the best singles in his career, it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Rap Charts.

Also on Stillmatic, Nas reunited with the producer who'd launched his career. Large Professor gave Nas his first appearance on Main Source's "Live At the BBQ" back in 1991, and he produced standouts on Stillmatic. "You're Da Man" brought out the best in the Queens rapper. “That song was great, man," Large Pro said in 2012. "I was in my crib one time, laying on the bed chillin’, watching TV. And I heard ‘You’re Da Man’ playing. Someone was playing it from outside, or from a car or some shit. I was like, ‘Yo, that’s dope.’ I rarely got those [moments], so that was nice."

The work that Nas has done with Large Professor remains some of the strongest in his discography, and "You're Da Man" is a high point for both the artist and the legendary producer. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez's "Sugar Man" forms the basis for a pensive, somber track that features Nas pondering his journey. The next track is another Large Pro masterpiece, as Nas makes it clear to anyone who doubted that he's one of the best storytellers of all time. "Rewind" is one of his most acclaimed tracks, as Nas tells a story backwards, breaking down in reverse how a vengeful shoot-out happened.

"I said, 'Man, it'll be cool if I could talk about a murder in the 'hood, but what if we rewind the whole thing where it never happened?" he explained to MTV. "If things could happen like that.' I knew that nobody was even thinking about that. And it naturally came to me. ... I love to inspire."

On "2nd Childhood," Nas astutely breaks down his peers who seem to be stuck in a state of arrested development. Hip-Hop was often criticized for perpetuating a certain kind of Peter Pan-ism, but here Nas observes just how casually so many people seem incapable of psychologically growing up. With a sample of "Born To Love" by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack, Nas calls out those who refuse to let go of childish things.

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It wasn't just Jay-Z who'd drawn the Queens legend's ire. Nas also had to call out some former friends. On the fiery "Destroy & Rebuild," he went at fellow Queens representers Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Cormega. “He had to say that," Cormega said at the time. "Nas grew up with me. He knows how I get down. If you listen to “One Love” on Illmatic, “What’s up with Cormega? Hold the fort down. Represent to the fullest.” Nas knows I’m a gangster. Cormega as an artist, you can like me or hate me. But nobody’s ever tested my street credibility. The only thing that bothered me on that record is when he said “Cormega can suck my d**k.” I couldn’t sleep at night when I heard that. I had to make [the Cormega track ["A Slick Response.”] If I didn’t, my fans would be mad at me.”

"The Flyest" is one of the best collaborations in the long history of Nas and AZ; their chemistry is effortless on the track, produced by L.E.S.

One of the slicker tracks on the album, the Trackmasters-produced "Rule" features Amerie and Nas rapping over a reworking of Tears For Fears' 80s hit "Everybody Wants To Rule the World." The song is about his global worldview and American tensions, and unlike the. track that follows it, the song is optimistic. The subject matter of "My Country" is similar, but much more bitter in tone. These are two of the album's most topical moments and highlight the rapper's ability to present his perspective in a way that's always engaging and relatable.

"I think there's a lot of artists out there that are really here just to make you dance and really have no substance," he said in 2001. "And that's cool because they also inspire me and inspire people to have a good time. When you look at what happened with 9/11, those people who hijacked the plane and tried to destroy America, they probably figured that the whole world would be in turmoil by this time. But ... we're still on our feet, so the terrorists died for nothing. Of course that's gonna bleed into my music."

The spiritual centerpiece of Stillmatic isn't the firebomb that is "Ether" and it's not the kinetic "Got Urself A..." That distinction has to go to the Chucky Thompson-produced "One Mic." It's introspective Nas and confrontational Nas; it's uplifting Nas and enraged Nas. The track shifts between soft and loud as effectively as a Nirvana song, as Nas delivers some of his most compelling lyrics, evoking funeral shoot-outs and inner frustration. It's hard to tell if the song is literal or metaphorical or both, and it's a brilliant showcase for who Nas is as an emcee and an artist. At a 2014 festival in Texas, Nas explained how his brother Jungle helped him get the song together.

“Year after year. Another album after another album. Record company bullshit," he said onstage. "Life, life. So, I couldn’t write,” Nas said during his Fun Fun Fun Fest performance. “And I listened to what he said, and he gave me the first four lines and then I took it from there. My brother said this—He’s not a rapper, ‘All I need is one mic…’”

The late Chucky Thompson explained that he wanted Nas to deliver a song that could define the album and transcend any hype surrounding the Nas/Jay-Z beef. "I knew that that beef wasn’t gonna last forever.," Thompson told HipHopDX. "My whole thing was, ‘Okay, so what do we do after this whole beef is over? How do we come out of this?'”

“He mentioned to me that he wanted to make a record where the chorus was quiet [laughing] and that verses would rise. So me taking those two ideas, I just came up with something that was calm and built up a little bit in the verses and then go back calm for his chorus.”

Stillmatic was released on December 18, 2001 and was the most critically-acclaimed Nas album since his iconic debut. The album shot to No. 8 on Billboard, as Selwyn Hinds of The Village Voice raved, "The Nas on this record has grown, with the emotional expansion such maturation suggests. For one, he has never before drawn upon his anger, with a burning focus and controlled intensity that underscores nearly every song."

Twenty years later, the beef with Jay-Z has long subsided and Nas is one of rap's most accomplished elder statesmen. His latest album Kings' Disease II is one of 2021's best, and he's already gotten a Best Rap Album Grammy for it's predecessor. But it all looked somewhat shaky back in 2001, when Jay-Z was taking shots, Nas was reeling and Hip-Hop was wondering if he still had it. Like the greats do, Nas rose to the occasion. Stillmatic is the beginning of one of Hip-Hop's best second acts.

But don't call it comeback.

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