Longevity is a rarity in the music industry, especially within hip-hop, so it’s surprising to find not one, but two artists whose careers have lasted over a decade. With their latest releases, Nas and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, two of the stalwart figures of mid-90s New York rap, crest this watermark with different, if equally intriguing, records. On “Street’s Disciple,” Nas, aka Nasir Jones, spokesman of his Queensbridge turf, conjures up a sweeping double album. Though it features his trademark lyrical dexterity and seamless flow, he weighs himself down with self-important pretension and showiness. ODB, who passed away last November, is a different voice from a different borough. On “Osirus: The Official Mixtape” he maintains the same self-deprecating humor and jaw-droppingly wild vocal style that made him a beloved member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
From the outset, the problems with “Street’s Disciple” are patent: The album’s cover, depicting a intoxicated-looking Nas at the center of a Last Supper-style portrayal, is conceited to the point of sacrilege. Of course, egotism isn’t exactly uncommon in hip-hop, but the man clearly suffers from a massive messianic complex (i.e. the crucifixion imagery in the video for 1999’s “Hate Me Now,” or the not-too-understated title of his 2001 release “God’s Son”).
Nas seems to use Christ as a symbol for the suffering of the streets. On the one hand, that grave world-view drives some of Nas’ most poetic lyrical imagery: “May your pain be champagne / then we all blaze away,” he raps on “A Message to the Feds.” But it also fosters an almost laughable pomposity. A maniacally chortling demon on “Nazareth Savage,” an overt reference to we-all-know-what, evokes the same response as a weeping angel on the obligatory ode-to-the-fallen-rappers “Just a Moment” — which is, unfortunately, not much. It is a far cry from the subtlety of his ground-breaking 1994 debut, “Illmatic.”
More successfully, the second disc of “Disciple” takes a more club-ready slant, with some fairly well-packaged singles. “Suicide Bounce,” one of the few tracks produced by Nas himself, snakes a dynamic string section around some spooky “Close Encounters”-inspired sound effects. “Virgo,” which features Ludacris and the iconic Doug E. Fresh, is pure freak-tastic, beat-boxing enchantment.
The album’s hands-down best beat is on “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim),” which is surprisingly also produced by Nas. The track trades a massive, echoing drum against cleanly twinkling chimes. Though never approaching a Neptunes-esque level of experimentation, Nas can still push the envelope as he did 10 years ago, though his reluctance to step out of the spotlight and into the producer’s booth speaks volumes about where his mind is today.
Though Nas might have expanded his repertoire from the streets to the spiritual, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the former Russell Jones, remains a New York kid through and through. “A Brooklyn soldier yes I’m is” he screeches on “High in the Clouds.” Indeed, “Osirus” doesn’t veer far from his mid-90’s ramblings, which is just the way it should be — after all, the Wu-Tang Clan’s “36 Chambers” may very well be the best hip-hop albums ever made.
“Osirus” is a relentless circus of lasciviousness. And though its not even a official studio production, in the sense that ODB passed away before completing post-production, it is a more cohesive work than most hip-hop albums out there.
That’s not to say it isn’t lewd: Let’s see Michael Powell censor Ol’ Dirty when he dares him to “Eat my a** / and have a Coke with that” on “Dirty Dirty.” Marvelously, the rapper’s ear-taming flow engrosses rather than grosses-out, as Nas does on his ode to the ladies “Remember the Times,” one of the most vulgar rap songs in recent memory.
“Fire,” a beat-heavy remix of “Dirty Dirty,” recalls Nas’ apocalyptic leanings, with its cutting violins and arching choral chants. Yet the rapper’s sustained, cartoonish screams of “Fire!” clue the listener into the joke of it all. Even tracks that would be dark or forcibly ominous in another rapper’s hands become playful in Dirty’s — one can only imagine what Nas would do on “Pop Shots,” on which Dirty does his best imitation of falsetto. It may grate the ears a bit, but it’s certainly easier on the mood.
As far as similarities go, Nas and Ol’ Dirty Bastard are practically kin, sharing the same hometown, upbringing on the streets, even the same last name. But their ideologies couldn’t be further apart. These 10 years have turned Nas from a hungry young rapper into a success-warped Christ-monger, whose great talents ache to be released with less egoism and more thoughtfulness. To hold “Osirus” and “Disciple” side by side accentuates the supremacy of the late great Dirty’s tongue-in-cheek artfulness over Nas’ heavy-handed approach.