10 Years, 100 Songs: #79. “King of the Town, Yeah, I Been That”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 11, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
It isn’t easy to completely ruin your reputation just seven years after releasing one of the best albums of all-time, by Nasir Jones certainly tried his damndest. Dropping debut Illmatic in 1994, an album which was quickly hailed as a classic and whose rep only seemed to improve over the years, Nas proceeded to piss it all away. Some liked It Was Written, which at least contained a pair of quality hits in “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled the World,” but within a couple years, he was making videos with R. Kelly, Ginuwine, and worst of all, Puff Daddy, whose “Hate Me Now” collab with Mr. Jones was probably one of the five biggest MTV disasters of the decade. It’s still sort of hard to tell what Nas was thinking during this period, since if he was attempting to cross over and/or sell out, he wasan’t even doing a very good job–Nas was never even slightly believable as a pop rapper, too serious-looking and not really all that charismatic. Often when fans cry out for their artist of choice to go back to their roots, it’s because the artist is growing faster than the fans are, but in Nas’s case, it actually was because street poetry was the one thing Nas was really good at.
Even though he was arguably on the losing end, the feud with Jay-Z might’ve been the best thing that could have happened to him. Nas appeared shortly after with Stillmatic, a refocused attempt to recapture his now sorely lacking street cred. Parts of it worked, parts of didn’t, but it was his biggest success in years, and it put him back on the right track. Then in 2003, he released the first single from new album God’s Son, “Made You Look”–and it was everything any Nas fan could’ve wanted from him in the decade since he set his own bar far too high. It was retro–unabashedly so, given its drawing from that golden spring of hip-hop samples, the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” and its largely black-and-white, street-centered video–but it wasn’t old-fashioned. Rather, it was unbelievably exciting, one of the punchiest, most visceral hip-hop singles of the decade, sweeping in with the force of a hurricane and almost single-handedly ensuring Nas’s return to relevancy in the 21st century.
In fact, as far as single songs go, I’d probably take “Made You Look” over anything on Illmatic. Every song on that album (not counting the intro, anyway) was fantastic, but they were mostly reserved, almost meditative observational pieces, ones which made for a positively transfixing album-listening experience when put together, but none of which would necessarily stand as a hip-hop essential on their own. “Made You Look,” on the other hand, walked right up to your face and dissed you. From the opening shotgun blast (always a good way to start off a comeback single, for the record) to Nas’s song-ending proclamation of “My nines’ll spit / Niggas lose consciousness,” the thing just straight-up slaughters, captivating and invigorating and fucking cool as all hell. There aren’t many songs that make me stop what I’m doing just to listen, but every time I hear “Made You Look,” it’s virtually impossible to focus on anything else for the three and a half minutes–the song doesn’t give you enough breathing room to, anyway.
The beat is one of the best there’s ever been in hip-hop. The fact that it takes from such an obvious sample source barely even registers, because it doesn’t just loop the “Apache” break or hook and loop it like most songs had done, but it kinda cuts it up and distorts it to the point of barely being recognizable, like Public Enemy used to do with well-traveled James Brown breaks. The drums are heavy but extremely reverbed, creating a thick sound in which guitars (the rapidly-picked one-note lick from the “Apache” bridge) drift in and out, and over which faint voices chant “BRAAAAAAVEHEEEAAAAARTS, BRAAAAAAAVEHEEEAAARTS” (or as I thought it was until two seconds ago, “HEY NAS, HEY NAS“). It’s a rich, fluid mix, but it wouldn’t be half as powerful as is without the nine-note bass line that slithers its way in every fourth bar. It’s hard to explain what it is that makes this bass pattern so effective, but it sounds like the most sinister, creeping thing you’ve ever heard, and it ends up keeping your attention for the entire song because you just can’t wait to get to the end of every four-bar segment to hear it again.
He wasn’t likely to ever get a beat this can’t-miss again, so lucky for him that Nas brought his A-game to the track as well. The thing is stacked with great lines–“We can drive through the city no doubt / But don’t say my car’s topless, say the titties is out,” “This ain’t rappin’, this is street hop / Now get up off yo ass like yo seat’s hot,” “Do the smurf, do the wop, baseball bat / Rooftop like we bringin’ ’88 back” (the latter borrowed by the Cool Kids for the entire chorus of their song “’88”). But more important than the quote-worthy couplets were the fact that Nas just sounded comfortable, completely confident in his element once more. “King of the town,” he sneers in the first verse, “Yeah, I been that.” Of course, over a less dominant beat, it might’ve sounded like a shallow attempt at too-cool bravado–Nas had annnounced his presence with authority countless times over Stillmatic, but it often felt like he was just trying too hard. But with a song like “Made You Look,” it just sounds like Nas is too busy being cock diesel to worry about frivolous things like street stature. He’d never seemed nearly this unassailable before.
Unsurprisingly, he’d never come close again. Next single was “I Can,” a Beethoven-sampling, KRS-One-esque attempt to reach out to the Youth of America, which ended with him pleading “Save the music, y’all.” I kinda liked it, but it made him suddenly sound very old, a perception which Nas did little to dissuade with subsequent releases. Proclaiming hip-hop to be dead, making self-consciously genre-splicing collaborations with his jazzman father and writing songs about 80s nostalgia, it was disconcerting how quickly Nas turned into the Grumpy Old Man of hip-hop, sitting on his porch and waving his cane at the meddling kids of today. It was like he saw the positive reception to “Made You Look” (and to a lesser extent, songs like “One Mic” and “Nas is Like”) and decided that he should’ve just gone old school all along, not even bothering to compete with the young’ns. It’s not totally terrible logic, but Nas didn’t really have the body of work to retire as a hall-of-famer–it would be like if Dontrelle Willis retired in a few years, declaring himself unwilling to compete with a diminishing skill set, and reinvented himself as a Barkley-esque, truthbomb-dropping baseball analyst. Nas didn’t exactly make all the right deicisions himself over the course of his career, so to start casting himself as either the arbitor or, worse, savior of the genre smacks of hypocrisy.
It’s kind of a shame, since Nas clearly had the talent to be one of the game’s true greats, but either due to poor timing, poor management, poor beat selection or just overall poor judgement, he was forever chasing his own tail, so busy trying to catch up with himself that he never really established a consistent identity. Still, if Illmatic was an album so good that it was understandable that it should become the albatross hanging over the first half of his career, then I think it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to ascribe that same status to “Made You Look” for Nas, Mk. 2. I’m not sure how many rappers could follow this song up.
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”