OK, so this one has pretty much shipped out from our lovely warehouse in Harrisburg, PA by now. It's a smart, passionate study of Nas' debut album - released 15 years ago last week. Here's an excerpt from the book's third chapter:
Nas would eventually name his record label after Ill Will, and he has never stopped talking about him. For the cynical outside viewer, this is no different than name-checking his Queensbridge upbringing, a street-cred ploy, the badge he carries with him to get a free pass when younger, hungry emcees come after Nas (a self-confessed homebody) and his commitment to the rugged lifestyle. But listening to him talk about his experience outside of the jaded mindset would quiet even the most antagonistic critic. Nas, an infinitely talented emcee with little need for a mythology, gained very little in May 1992. But he did, just before his career broke wide open, lose a friend.
The universe does have a way of balancing out. A few months later, for however short a period of time, Nas would gain a vital friend in MC Serch. "I didn't actually track him down," Serch recalls. "I was in the studio working on my solo album [Return of the Product], and Stretch Armstrong and Reef, who were A&R at Atlantic at the time, brought a bunch of emcees. I was with Red Hot Lover Tone and Chubb Rock in the studio, and Reef and Stretch brought Nas, Akinyele, and Percee P to spit on 'Back to the Grill Again.'" The end result was a posse cut similar to Nas' wax-debut "Live at the BBQ." His presence is noticeably different though. Unlike the earlier cut, where Nas had seemed anxious but confident, this less-remembered Nas persona is gruff and forceful. Though his voice is still instantly recognizable, the 17-year-old is playing with it, trying to stand on his toes to measure up to the adults in the room. The result is a deeper, gravelly snarl of a delivery, uncomfortably matched with Nas' usual flow. It's a rare opportunity to see a future great experimenting with approaches, but it would be more satisfying if he hadn't already nailed his persona in his first and only previous attempt.
Not the best video quality on this clip, but absolutely worth watching. Nas comes in shortly before the two-minute mark, waving automatic guns at nuns: