In the midst of Saturday's release of the latest chapters in hip-hop's ongoing biggest feud -- Drake's "Summer Sixteen" and Meek Mill's "War Pain" -- an unexpected remix by another rap great was quickly upstaged.
At least, it was for me.
I wasn't tuned in during to the OVO Sound Radio episode over the weekend, so I only saw that Nas had remixed Future's "March Madness" -- a track which premiered on the show -- later in the night. I pressed play and rewind a few times, instantly impressed with Esco's comfort on the track, dismantling a beat with characteristics that we're not all that used to hearing him rhyme over.
But before long, I was back to "Summer Sixteen" and "War Pain," listening closely to the back-and-forth, and engaging in my own back-and-forth with friends about what the latest development meant for each rapper, the battle, the year -- all of it.
And then, yesterday, Usher dropped his "Chains" music video, which features Nas and Bibi Bourelly. The arresting black-and-white visuals don't actually feature Nas -- just his verse -- but it brought the track back into the front of my mind. I heard it when they first debuted it in October, and even saw them perform it at Tidal X 1020 later that month, but revisiting it, particularly in the context of the just-released "March Madness" remix, gave me pause -- followed by a realization:
Nas has been in a zone, delivering a tear of guest verses over the last year.
Perhaps this comes as no surprise (nor, necessarily, should it) given his status as a true hip-hop GOAT. But as we sit in the thick of the longest album drought of Nasty's career -- it's been three-and-a-half years since Life is Good, with no defined end or follow up in sure sight -- it's worth taking a break to remind that he hasn't been entirely absent, and to marvel at the way he's picked his spots over the last twelve months and what's come of those decisions.
"March Madness" and "Chains" are indicative of his ability to adapt: "Madness" is pure madness -- a dizzying lyrical tour de force, heavy on bravado, with lines like, "I'm hip-hop baby dad/ And all of y'all my litter, my little kids"; "Chains," though, is politically-charged, evoking another side of Nas we've also heard so often for two decades. "Revolution is coming," he promises at the close of a verse which name-checks everyone from W.E.B. DuBois to Eric Garner.
As he does with these, he's stamped guest spots over the last year with both versatility and ease, inserting himself on tracks from pop icons, hip-hop vets, underground champs and Southern stalwarts. The diversity of approach hasn't sounded contrived, but rather suggestive of his cemented status as a legend, proving he has neither lost a step nor touch with where the game's been and where it's at.
For our purposes, this particular reemergence began to take shape last February, with appearances on Madonna's "Veni Vidi Vici" and Fashawn's "Something to Believe In," separated by just a matter of weeks.
The Madge feature began a bit awkwardly, but Esco quickly found his footing, getting personal and reflective about his life and career. The Fash joint is more immediately in Nas' repertoire, as he teams with his Mass Appeal signee and Aloe Blacc for some verbal hopscotch over horn-driven production.
From there, he supplied the hook for De La Soul's April release "God It," but really kicked into gear in the fall.
Nas delivered vivid tales -- of his neighborhood, friends come and gone, and the systems that have caused those untimely exits -- on tracks like Dave East's "Forbes List," Scarface's "Do What I Do", Game's "The Ghetto" and Pimp C's "Friends."
His packed wordplay returned, too, on November's "One of Us," from Rick Ross' Black Market, and the "God (Remix)," alongside Jeezy. The latter isn't quite "My President 2.0," but it captures the Queens rapper in a focused state, rhyming over a relatively sparse beat from TM88 & Southside, and doing so in a commanding, confident fashion.
There's a couplet towards the verse's end that feels particularly significant: "I'm an acquired taste/ The god, way up in a higher place/ I'm for a mature audience, reppin' the Empire State," he raps.
Paired with his verse on Justin Bieber's "We Are" -- where Nas is singularly focused on romance, coming off not forced, but aware, when he raps, on a song from the world's biggest pop star, who's half his age, "I'm serious girl, a much older dude, a whole 42/ I've accomplished my goals, it's only you" -- it's again clear he has no desire to be something that he's not.
He's owning his place in rap's ever-evolving ecosystem, moving deliberately and with patience.
That sort of been-through-the-storm-and-now-I-can-reflect attitude was apparent both on Life Is Good and in the pomp surrounding the 20th anniversary of Illmatic and its accompanying re-release in 2014, and it's only sharpened over time. But he's aged without compromising. The realization doesn't come at the expense of keenly descriptive narratives, lyrical somersaults, a chokehold of the beat or an audible hunger otherwise reserved unproven MCs.
Last April, Nas assured he had an album coming in the summer of 2015. Those days have long come and passed, but maybe all these guest spots means he's in the studio, assured in his stride, and ready to deliver that 11th solo album.
Until then, I'll have these verses in rotation.