The Album That Changed Rap For Me – Nas’ “I Am…The Autobiography” – I must admit, I did not grow up listening to hip hop. Sitting in the back seat of the station wagon, my exposure to music was easy listening or golden oldies on the radio. Rap or rock music was not something my mother wanted me “under the influence” of. “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J was the first hip hop song I remember playing non-stop, and the first rap tape I bought was a bootlegged version of Ice-T’s “Home Invasion”. I still can picture my brother and I having to secretly listen to Naughty By Nature or Cypress Hill, there wasn’t a chance we were letting my mother hear a single lyric. It really wasn’t till high school that I got completely swallowed up by hip hop, and by the end of those four years, I had amassed a collection of rap/hip hop albums in the hundreds. I would spend my afternoons digging for albums in any record store I could find, any chance I could. I was constantly on the search for that song or album with a sick beat or verse that I had never heard before. Always hopeful that I would find that one track that everyone would be talking about. I sure there are those out there who did the same thing and feel the same way I do about music.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones and the Digital Crusade
After arriving at Northeastern University in 1998, I discovered the digital medium known as mp3. With a roommate majoring in Computer Engineering and the help of a little file sharing program called Cute Ftp, I began downloading every new album weeks and sometimes months before it was scheduled to be released. Remember, this was the Stone Age of file sharing, before Napster, long before iTunes, when the only feasible way to get music for free was to burn a friend’s copy of the latest hot CD. The leaked albums that were being uploaded would have made DJ Clue jealous and I began making my own “mix-tapes” and giving them to friends. It was exciting, all the music I could ever want, for free on the internet. I had a site online where people had to share music with me before I would share with them. On of the prized uploads that I received was the original leaked version of Nas’ “I Am…The Autobiography”.
The Bootleg of All Bootlegs
There has been a long debate over “I Am…The Autobiography”, much of it consisting on the idea that it was originally intended to be a double album and either the first disc or a disc worth or tracks were released online. The bootlegged version forced Nas to scratch the double album and release a shortened version with new songs added. I’m not so sure that this is an accurate account of how the retail version of “I Am…The Autobiography” came to be. Looking at other opinions elsewhere online, it seems everyone agrees that there was a double album ready to go and in many places I have seen a supposed tracklist. The tracks that did not make “I Am…The Autobiography” were later released on “Nastradamus” and “The Lost Tapes “. I would contend Nas recorded numerous tracks for the album, the best written songs were picked for “I Am…The Autobiography” and this was the bootleg that made it on the internet back in 1999. I had the original bootleg, I can tell you that the album began with “Fetus (Belly Button Window)” The exact track listing ran like this:
Nas I Am…The Autobiography
01. Fetus (Belly Button Window)
03. Money Is My Bitch
04. Project Window
05. Poppa Was A Player
06. Dr. Knockboots (Do’s And Don’t)
07. Day Dreamin’ Stay Schemin
08. Sometimes I Wonder
10. Drunk By Myself
11. Wanna Play
12. Blaze A 50
13. We Will Survive
Nas’ “I Am…The Autobiography” – The Lost 5 Mic Album
The bootlegged version was amazing, something not quite “Illmatic” but definitely up to par with “It Was Written”. Now “It Was Written” is still considered a classic album, but fans will say that it is too commercial and not as well written (no pun intended) as “Illmatic”. At the time, I felt that Nas had taken everything that had happened over the previous five years from “It Was Written” through the Firm album, put it in perspective, and went back to his roots of being one of the most prolific and greatest rhyme writers in hip hop history. The first time I listened to “Fetus” gave me goose bumps, and tracks like “Blaze A 50” and “Drunk By Myself” proved that few have the ability to create a mental picture like Nas. I contest that this single album version of “I Am…The Autobiography” was intended to be the retail release and would have solidified Nas as the greatest rapper of his generation.
The Beginning of the End For Rap
And this brings me to why I consider this a turning point in hip hop, where rap changed for me. I can’t get over the feeling that Nas freestyled all of the new songs on the album, and, after listening to the retail version of “I Am…” and comparing it to the bootlegged one, I was disappointed and unimpressed. “Nas Is Like”, the DJ Premier produced lead single not on the bootleg version, is an amazing song, vintage Nas and may be the one track from the album that could be used as a counter argument. Clearly this track was well written and thought out, there is nothing freestyled about it, however, watch the video and you see the simulated scenes of Nas in the studio seemingly dropping the track off the top of the dome. A subtle hint as to what he went through with the album? “Do You Hate Me Now” was bland and underwhelming many of the songs that made it to the retail version did not have that lyrical depth as the songs left off. Now some will say that these songs were not freestyled but written for the double album, that argument is ridiculous. To them I say listen to the songs from the original bootleg and then listen to the tracks that made it to the retail version, they are not even close. I can’t believe a producer, engineer, or Nas himself would have created a double album consisting of a track list where all of the “bangers” save one made it to the first disc. I can tell that Nas spent the time to write the verses for those songs before he stepped in the booth to record them, I cannot say the same for the majority of the songs which then made it to the release.
This doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of freestyles or freestyled lyrics, but there is a time and a place, and a studio album that is expected to sell millions at $10-$15 a pop is not the spot. When an artist expects me to invest my time and money in to their product and puts in less effort than they should, I am less likely to hand over my hard earned dollars the next time. I’m not naive to think that other artists previous to this had not freestyled songs or parts of albums, but I’m pretty sure that most went into the studio with previously written verses or wrote verses to specific beats. I do not think an artist went into the studio and just said “Let the tape roll” and freestyled an album’s worth of music. Bringing it back to Nas’ “I Am…The Autobiography”, the bootlegged version had the feel of Nas in the studio, pen and pad in hand, beats bumping, and the wheels turning; while the retail version felt more like Nas in the studio trying to rush through the production of a half a dozen songs by grabbing beats and freestyling over them.
The Industry Shifts With the Age of Digital Theft
I don’t know if this was just the first time I realized that a rap artist would freestyle just to make a song, but everything in hip hop seemed to shift soon after the release of this album. Napster and other file sharing programs were gaining notoriety and the mainstream really began to embrace rap, hip hop, and the whole urban music scene. Record companies couldn’t get artists like Nas or members of Wu-Tang to release music fast enough while all the time worried about any new music being leaked. In defense of the artists and record companies, they were in the Wild West of digital media and everyone was worried about the loss of revenue. No one wants to lose money from theft. But what the companies and artists failed to realize is, if you create great music, if you put in your heart and soul, we will buy the music. I downloaded everything before it came out, if it was good, I purchased it. Even if I couldn’t afford it. I loved an artists work so much that I invested my money along with my time, it was that valuable.
Regretfully the artist and record companies alike forgot this ideal and went in the opposite direction. It seemed like the solution was to just record as much as possible, as fast as possible and get it out as soon as possible. Soon the market was saturated with rap album after rap album. Normally artists usually spent a couple of years in between projects, between tours and the writing process for the next album. Now the industry was releasing albums with a greater frequency, with many artists releasing two albums in a year. I’m sorry but even the greatest artists cannot churn out top quality verses in that short a period of time. My guess is many of these albums were freestyled and quickly written in order to take advantage of the hip hop interest, as well as combating the internet leaks by shortening the time period to produce albums. If you look around to other music genres, there were no other artists with an album on the Billboard Chart back to back to back years with different albums. This highlights the issue with the money grab the took place in the hip hop industry of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. In the end the quality of hip hop suffered.
The Fallout of Nas’ “I Am…The Autobiography”
I stopped buying rap albums in 2001 and almost completely stopped listening to new hip hop by 2002. Nothing seemed like it was back in the day, those same artists that I could not get enough of 5 year before i.e. Nas, Method Man, GZA, RZA, Redman, Mobb Deep, all seemed like a shell of their former self’s. Was it the loss of that youthful fire or was it a rush to release material at a breakneck pace? Whatever the answer, the results were the same – mediocre albums with forgettable lines. That is the consequence of artists not putting the time into their rhymes, freestyling more than writing. It became too prevalent for me, much too noticeable in the finished work, and eventually was not worth the money and the time I used to have for them. Even with the ability to find any album on the internet for free, I still had lost interest to the point where I wasn’t interested any more.
This is something that I have been thinking about for a long time. The argument that rap went mainstream, jumped the shark, and lost a lot of the gritty realness. That instead of being the gospel of the streets and it was more the afterthoughts of the strip clubs and primetime television shows. I still listened to rap and hip hop just nothing new and not with the same fervor as I had before. Over time there were some artists who brought me back, most notably RA the Rugged Man. “Die, Rugged Man, Die” was one of the most raw and well written albums I had ever heard. RA still seemed to channel the same intensity that he had as a young artist. Some artists that I’d never given a chance to before, I came to love and appreciate like Eightball. The man is a lyrical genius who has an ability to put such poignant and profound lyrics together and create some amazing songs. It is Eightball who can best put to words everything that I’ve tried to convey in this blog in one verse. From “Reason for Rhyme” off the Rhyme & Reason Soundtrack – “No gun, just a pen and notebook paper by the sheet/ In the crib, gettin funky off the next nigga beat/ No electronics to make the shit that I wrote the chronic/ Shit sick enough to bring vomit from your stomach…” “Freestyle, not great, but if you wait for a second/ I could write some shit down that could get a gold record/ Thought about not the first thing that I think about/ MJG and Eightball and hard is how we comin out…”
That Back In The Day Buffet of Hip Hop
This site is for those that love hip hop, that Back In The Day Buffet of hip hop. When every album was ill, all the beats were sick, and every song you could recite verse for verse. There is a reason the times were so great, why those albums and songs stand the test of time. It’s because those artists we love put their heart and soul into the music, they did not settle for second best. Those artists that lived in the studio. The ghetto poets who lived and breathed the art that we all love so dear were rewarded with classic albums that are revered to this day by lifelong fans. The problem is over time and because of technology and popularity, the product became less of what it once was. I’d rather my artists spend the time creating 10-15 quality tracks for each album, then freestyling an entire album because they think that their ability trumps what’s most important: quality music. I will forever be a fan of hip hop and will forever love those rap artists that I grew up listening to. As with all artists, quality of work often diminishes over time, but too many of our “greats” and “legends” have become something their former self’s might scoff at, I know I have – One Too Many Times!