Nas Escobar vs. Nas, Street Poet: Which Nas Is Better?

Which Nas is better, Escobar or street poet Nas?

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Image via Complex Original
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It's the age old question: When will Escobar Season return? We thought it was happening when Nas released "The Season" a couple months ago—instead we got a couple bars over a Dilla beat and a hashtag (#SeasonofNasir). Nasty has had a roller coaster of a career since releasing Illmatic in 1994. The former prodigy turned chip-toothed Don turned street philosopher turned OG was never able to settle on a sound, something Jay Z brought up on the Blueprint 2 title track: "Is it 'Oochie Wally' or is it 'One Mic?' Is it 'Black Girl Lost' or shorty owe you for ice?" Like his sound, Nas' ear for beats has been inconsistent as well. His releases between It Was Written and Life Is Good all have two things in common: dope lyrics, weak beats (for the most part).

This is an issue he's finally figuring out almost two decades later.  Life Is Good is a damn good album, and we're eager to hear what's in store for his upcoming 11th album. Are we going to get Escobar, his new money, pink suit wearing, rich mobster persona, or the street poet, the wunderkind who ably scribbled the tribulations of the world into his notepad, or some mix of the two? People like to shun It Was Written because he went commercial, but that album matched his state of mind at the time perfectly. He let opinions get in the way of his creativity. He's at his best when he plays both sides of the game: the poet and the gangster.

Does he still have something to prove? Daniel Isenberg and I debate which Nas is better: Escobar or street poet?


Angel: Nas gets a bad rap for his mafioso days. It Was Written was a great album. The Firm: The Album is grossly underrated. I Am... would’ve been even better if bootleggers didn’t leak it. That joint had some shit on it. The Lost Tapes had a good mix of both Escobar and street poet Nas, and had songs that were supposed to make it on I Am... I’m disappointed that “The Season” wasn’t a song about Escobar season returning. This argument can be used as the thesis to his career. Nastradamus showed a guy who was confused as to which direction he wanted to go in. He let the fans and media decide his fate after the response to It Was Written, and I Am... leaking early.


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Daniel: It Was Written was a natural progression from Illmatic, and it contains some of the dopest Nas raps and flows of his career. And even though it was the official solo birth of Nas Escobar, I’m not necessarily sure I would classify it as a purely Esco-style album. Not with shit like “I Gave You Power,” “Take It in Blood,” “Black Girl Lost,” and “If I Ruled the World” on it. Sure, he also delivered a healthy amount of wealthy gangsterness too, but it was still all the way hood, with plenty of realism and next level lyricism. The spirit of a Queensbridge kid pumps through that LP. Even those freestyles where he's saying "Escobar season begins" are more the lyrical, storytelling side of Nas than the gangster side.

I think people were thrown by It Was Written when he started telling stories depicting street gangster life from a first-person perspective. You know, Tupac dissed him for rapping about getting shot and leaving the hospital the same night on “The Message,” and he rapped on “Shootouts” about killing an undercover cop. That was him making his raps exciting and entertaining on some real cinematic story shit, but for those who didn’t get that, he came off like he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. They were dope-ass tracks, but they lacked the authenticity and honesty to a degree that everyone loved and respected on his debut, therefore making them trickier to embrace.


Angel: Escobar Nas showed growth, though. Much like Life After Death showed growth in Biggie. He wasn’t this teenage phenom anymore, he was a millionaire storyteller and the raps reflected that at the time. I love “Hate Me Now.” That was the perfect single to follow up with after all the It Was Written hate. And that video was great. He was on the cross like an under-appreciated leader and was in the club dipped in fur like a young Frank Lucas, with Puffy spitting out Cristal for no particular reason. I mean, did Biggie make believe he kidnapped the wifey of a basketball player? It’s about creating a world, just like in a movie.

I wish he would own his Esco persona more, and make it like an Eminem/Slim Shady thing. It’s like telling both sides of the game. On the one hand, he’s this street poet, a prophet even, telling the listener about the pain and strife he sees; and on the other, he’s this rich gangster profiting from that same pain and strife. Some would say that he’s rising above it, not making excuses, and taking advantage of his environment. It’s kill or be killed, right?


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Daniel: Personally, as much as I see the value in "Hate Me Now" and those type of songs, I can do without that side of Nas. You mentioned "The Season" and how you wish it was the return of Escobar, but I like “The Season” the way it is. It’s one of my favorite rap tracks of 2014, and to me, the side of Nas the game needs more of. We need Nas right now on some lyrical, ride-through-the-city, make-you-press-rewind, fly godliness, not that gangster shit. And we need him on beats by guys like J Dilla, not DJ Mustard.

As much as I dig when he goes hard with his Esco side (his verse on “Eye for an Eye” is untouchable), he’s at his best and most original on joints like “One Love” and “2nd Childhood” where he’s painting vivid pictures of a life that heads in the hood can relate to—and everyone else can absorb—with supreme penmanship. We can always get the generic gangster shit about cars and fancy clothes from the rest of these dudes, even if he is better at it than them. But those guys could never deliver a sixteen as poetic and raw as his “Verbal Intercourse” verse, ever. That’s the Nas that puts him in the G.O.A.T. conversation, not his "Hot Boyz (Remix)" verse.


Angel: I get that, but there are very few rappers these days that could spit crime raps with comic-book-style imagery. “Eye for an Eye” is one of his best verses ever, and he put both personas into that verse. People don’t like “Who Killed It?” but it doesn’t get much more crime story than that. It’s like a noir radio show. He had the voice and everything: “Yahh see, you’ll never catch me alive, copper.” I felt like that was creative in the vein of “I Gave You Power” and “Rewind.” Nowhere near as good as those records, but still. He tried to show creativity on an album called Hip-Hop Is Dead. The intro track "Money Over Bullshit" is never talked about when Nas intros are mentioned. He floated on that, talking about: "My watches get laced up even if they indicted Jacob." Esco is in full beastmode on that track. You also have to admit he figured out how to market an album because of Stillmatic. He used the Jay beef, hip-hop falling off, the n-word, and his divorce to promote albums. Can't believe I just bigged up "Who Killed It?"

Daniel: Hip-Hop Is Dead doesn't get any burn in my Nas rotation. I literally never listen to it. Like, I'm familiar with "Who Killed It?" of course, but other than "Still Dreaming" with Kanye and maybe the shit with Jay, that album doesn't appeal to me. "Who Killed It?" is dope conceptually, but it's not executed with the illness of "Rewind." That shit is awesome, from the backwards story to the Large Professor production, and a great example of Nas spitting some creative street rapper shit about violent life in the hood without having to go and emit a full-on Mafia-style gangster persona. He got it right on Stillmatic, for sure. "You're Da Man" is crazy, too.


Angel: “The Message” is a top five Nas song, though. It oozes mafioso posturing. He and Biggie were in a cold war of subliminal messages: "Who you think "Kick In The Door" was for?" The Trackmasters were nowhere to be found on Nastradamus. That album sucked so bad, it almost ended his career. People really thought he was finished after Jay Z dropped “Takeover.” That street poet shit could get boring after a while. I like him best when he balances it out. We need more of the chip-toothed Don.

Daniel: Aside from “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II,” which I think is one of the most slept-on sequels in the history of rap, and “Nas Is Like,” which isn’t a personal favorite but is undoubtedly a classic, I don’t really care for I Am…, Nastradamus, or the Firm album. That little run after It Was Written and before Stillmatic is when Nas lost me. You’re right, he was confused, but the confusion kicked in well before Nastradamus. His content and beat selection on albums became very blah, for the most part, once the Firm era hit, and I blame that on him chasing that gangster persona and sound that became hot back then. I can understand why people like those albums, and I respect when he gets on his Don shit, but in terms of raps and production, that's not the Nas for me.


Angel: We can agree on that. I’m not sure what happened with his beat selection. The production on Illmatic was groundbreaking, and the beats on It Was Written were made for platinum success. He lost his ear along the way. Maybe it had something to do with Large Pro passing off managerial duties to Serch, or it had to do with the decline of the Trackmasters. Maybe his career would've played out differently had I Am... not leaked.

Daniel: Exactly my point. The reason why I Am... and the other stuff that came out after Illmatic and It Was Written was weaker is not because it didn't have enough Escobar gangster shit on it. It's because it was lacking that next level insight and lyricism that only Nas could give us. It was missing The Lost Tapes "Purple" Nas. I would’ve rather heard a few albums worth of gems like his verse on “Calm Down” instead of the whole fake Mafia bit he hopped on. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. “Phone Tap” is an ill track, and the the Firm album has a couple highlights. I bumped it, too, and can appreciate Nas wanting to do different things. But I would’ve preferred a more focused extension of “Silent Murder” Nas over “Affirmative Action” Nas (again, no shots, that song is a classic)—both lyrically and beat-wise.

There's a song on Nas' dad Olu Dara's album From Natchez to New York called "Jungle Jay" that I never hear anyone talk about. It features Nas flipping a straight-up street, almost Def Poetry Jam style that is ridiculously dope. And it was released during that late '90s Escobar era. Man, that song deserves more praise. It's so smooth and poetic and unique in delivery, but it got buried under the bullshit of that time period. Listen to that and then tell me you want more Escobar. I dare you!


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Angel: That’s a great track, but again, the best things in life are about balance. It’s crazy that all these years into his career and he still hasn’t figured it out. Jay said it best: “Just because you can’t understand him, don’t mean that he’s nice.” I would rather him lie to me about a drug deal gone wrong than lie to the children like he did on “I Know I Can.” And "Affirmative Action" is my favorite Firm song.

Daniel: I agree. Balance is important, which seems to be the theme of your argument and the shape that it's taken. Nas is dope because he gives us everything, even "I Know I Can." That song is corny to me—I would never drive around listening to it by myself. But I appreciate it for its positive message and ability to reach a wider and younger audience, inaccuracies aside. Maybe my kids will hear it in a different way than I do. All good.

I'm not mad at Nas, ever. Escobar is the man. I got love for gangster raps. Balance is best, we can agree on that. "Nazareth Savage" is a personal favorite, he kills that on some breezy gangster lyrical shit. That's a balanced Nas track at its best. He's unfuckwittable in that zone. And you can understand him, I don't feel like that's ever a problem with Nas. He's never really guilty of the "lyrical miracle" gibberish that Jay is talking about in that line you quoted.


Angel: That's another album that's too long, but it does have some shit on it. "A Message to the Feds, Sincerely, We the People" is very important to me. I listen to it every month or so, to keep things in perspective. That's Nasty Nas at his best. Yet I feel that cats like Biggie and Jay are above him because they figured out their personas early on. Nas is by far a better storyteller than Jay, even if he witnessed it from his folks' pad and created his life. I fuck with "Find Ya Wealth" Nas just as much as "Blaze a 50" Nas. I view rap like I do movies. It's about entertainment. Give me "Street Dreams" Nas more often and I'll be good.

Daniel: Look, I'm no rap critic. I'm a fan first, and my opinions here are from a fan's perspective. I never choose my words to criticize rappers, especially one of my heroes like Nas, so this debate is slightly uncomfortable for me. My body of work as a rap writer has been based on sharing history and the stories of artists I find to be immensely dope, not tearing them down in any way.

To me, Nas has more ill songs than any rapper in history. His sheer volume of awesome tracks tops any of his contemporaries, from Jay Z to Scarface to whoever people want to call the G.O.A.T. That said, the truth is, there are a lot of Nas songs I can do without. And they're usually the ones that are on the Escobar, gangster, uninteresting production side of the Nas spectrum. He's a special MC, arguably the best ever. So why settle for some shit I can get from someone else? I want the organic, observant, deep, poetic, prophetic, lyrically untouchable Nas—the one we worship for "Life's a Bitch" and praise for "Daughters."

Escobar is cool, but he's not the godly side of Nas that makes him a living legend. "Hate Me Now" is a classic, but it ain't even close to as dope or important as "One Love." Anyone who doesn't agree with that must like rap music for a different reason than I do. I'll leave it at that.

Angel: I still feel like Esco is underrated, though. I wish they took another crack at a Firm album when everyone was still in their prime. Hopefully his next ablum will have more of a balance. If Life Is Good is a sign of what's to come, I can't be mad at the direction he's going in. Either way it's still Escobar Season in my iPod.



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