If you’re a Nastafarian, a devout follower of Mr. Nasir “Nas” Jones, you might have heard of his coronation by CNN as “ hip hop’s finest emcee.” The crowning has merit. After all, not many emcees put out a debut album at the age of 19 that aficionados still use as a candle by which to judge all other subsequent works in a genre. Ilmatic, for many, is a candle that burns so bright that even its originator has had an impossible time trying to match its burn.
But the question remains: did CNN get it right?
Probably. Those that subscribe to the church of Rakim, The God Emcee, will chuck a collective sneaker at anyone who says otherwise, but Nas might have already dethroned him, if only because longevity and output are a part of the equation. Somewhere in the E=emcee2 formula you have to make room for durability.
The problem with the CNN claim lies not with the crowned prince, but with its breakdown of his crowning. The article’s author, Mr. Eliott C. McLaughlin, does a fairly fine job of contextualizing Nas’ market and cultural value over his 22-year tenure, but steps in potholes deeper than the ones in De La Soul’s lawn, while doing so.
First, the article makes a case for Nas being the industry’s finest emcee, as the title “A case for Nas, hip-hop’s finest MC” suggests. But yet on its second line in, it calls him the “greatest lyricist of all time.” Say what? While lyrics play a large part in determining an emcee’s worth, they are just one meal in a twelve-course dinner.
And the point must be made: is CNN taking the stand that Nas is the greatest emcee, hip-hop lyricist, or rhymesmith ever? In terms of emceeing, he might crack the top-5 of most personal lists but isn’t a hands down victor. A lot of that depends on personal preference, plus no one can make the claim that Jay-Z is any more technically proficient than Pharoahe Monch. It’s just a different cut of meat, is all.
When it comes to lyrics, there are many reputable candidates, many whom CNN forgot to mention. In no particular order, they missed Kool G Rap, Mos Def, MF DOOM, Black Thought, and, they should hang their heads in shame for this one, the GZA. There’s also the glaring omission of lyrical examples of Nas’ prowess. If you’re going to claim Shawn Kemp is the best in-game dunker ever, at least link to a reel, please. Other than a few nuggets of lyrical brilliance there’s not enough mention of Nas’ most coveted rhymes. And there’s definitely no substantive comparison with the lyrics of other greats. McLaughlin fails to mention why Lauryn Hill doesn’t make the cut when she penned one of the greatest lines in rap ever. You have to reference the Pauli exclusion principle to explain to folk why “behold, as my odes, manifold on your rhymes/ Two MC's can't occupy the same space at the same time,” off of “Zealots,” deserves a triple take, and Hill’s inclusion in the discussion.
If speaking of rhymesmiths, you need to include thousands of years of poets, lyricists of other musical genres, and the O.G. Dr. Seuss. That’s not to say that the man behind Green Eggs and Ham deserves the same critical recognition as the man who rhymed, “I rap divine, god, check the prognosis, is it real or showbiz? / My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses/ live amongst no roses, only the drama / a nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja,”
Third, McLaughin beefs up his argument, of what he rightly prefaces is only his opinion, by breaking down why he called Nas the “greatest” and not “the most successful” emcee of all time, which most would agree is a justifiable distinction. I mean, Lil’ Wayne dethroned the King’s record for Billboard hits. Don’t think anyone’s including Wayne in anything other than a “greatest dad” mug. But not three full paragraphs later, McLaughin is running a course through Nas’ album numbers and chart toppings. So which is it? Either success doesn’t determine an emcee’s HOF status, or it does. As Nasty Nas tells us, “[he’s] deep by sound alone.”
Fourth, there’s the weak journalistic approach to condense a whole history of hip-hop magnificence into hyperbolic terms. What the “f” does “of all time” mean anyway? Did a music critic turn to the guidance of a crystal ball to determine what will be the best from here on out, or do they know so little about something that they can only paint in broad strokes? By calling Nas the greatest of all time, should future emcees even bother to pick up a mic?
Finally, CNN can’t even get Nas Escobar to agree with them even when they claim that he absolutely won’t agree with them. To clarify, after stating that Nas doesn’t endorse himself as being the greatest lyricist of all time, Nas went on to say that he agrees with the tag . Further proof that CNN “can’t relate to what an eagle envisions.”