It seems the only thing critics can be bothered to talk about when dealing with hip-hop double albums (that most ostentatious of formats) is the number of tracks that could be excised to create a nifty, tighter single-disc release. (“Four on the first disc, three on the second. Voila!”) Maybe I’m being touchy here, but could it be that most critics (rockists, all of ‘em) don’t have the stamina to accept in a hip-hop record what is, just as it is with bloated rock albums, a structural choice? And, unless Nas has never been tipped off to the concept of outtakes and b-sides, his newest plus-size LP Street’s Disciple is as schematically severed down the middle as OutKast’s fraternal twins Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; as evidence, each disc’s roughly 45-minute running times (each comes with a “bonus track”) really do validate the clichéd “cut a song or two and it’d be a taut one-through.”
What’s really odd about the organization at play here is that Nas almost seems to be cutting the album down to a single disc preemptively. Nas the MC has always hedged a few bets—going through a panoply of producers and never really settling on a distinctive sonic signature (and I still consider his long-fought and long-storied battle with Jay-Z to be, at least, half publicity stunt)—and the delineation of the tracks into one-half or the other on Disciple all but announces which audience he intends to target: one side brings the bluster (“American Way,” a sourly nihilistic ode to non-partisanship—he hates both Republicans and Democrats equally, and makes a fairly poetic case), on the other goes the blubber (a multi-song “Wedding Suite” that moves from a mental bachelor party (“Remember The Times,” a.k.a. “To The Cootchies I’ve Speared, I Dick-Salute You”) to “Getting Married” and the glass-clinking reception of “No One Else In The Room.” One part street swagger, the other part neo-soul sumptuousness; Sweat, then Suit. (Not that there’s no blurring, as the Busta Rhymes duet that opens the second disc proves.)
There’s no doubt that Nas’s loyal fan base, who continue to tolerate an increasingly tiresome sense of overblown messianic delusions, will keep the first disc in their player. And there will be those who can’t fathom why Nas took some 15 songs to get to the meaty ambitiousness leading up to the album’s two best (and softest) tracks: the domestic drama and sensuous soul licks of “War” and the “this really shouldn’t work as well as it does” blues-dirge-cum-military-drill flip through the family photo album that is “Bridging The Gap.” I might fall into the latter group, but I’m more interested in how Nas uses the design of the double album and its eager-to-please two acts to mask the vague sense that, despite his still vivid lyrical imagery (“Was only scared of them STDs, syphilis, VD and herpes, Daffy Duck-lookin’ bitch burnt me”), he still hasn’t settled on a direction.