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Who Flipped It Better? Nas vs. Common

The Sample: Curtis Mayfield – ‘Other Side Of Town’ (1970)

We’ve already been over Curtis Mayfield and his supremacy in soul, funk, and rap music, so if you aren’t familiar, your mama should go over your ass with a switch. You know his voice even if you don’t know his name. If silkworms in China had a playlist to squeeze that stuff out to all day, it’d be Curtis.

His debut solo album, following his break from The Impressions, is a flat-out classic. A timeless record that still churns with anger and burns with sorrow, ‘Curtis’ is a thorough artistic statement of a man striking out and finding his own voice amongst the din of the world. Once he found it, he clung to it, and every time he let it out it sounded like his bottom lip was trembling with emotion. If you have a heart, Curtis can turn it to a sandcastle.

‘Curtis’ had political, racial, metaphysical, mental, and emotional issues running through it. Rumbling bass notes open the album, emanating as if from a smoldering furnace under a floor that will eventually be blown to pieces. He gets aspirational on ‘Move On Up,’ celebratory on ‘Miss Black America,’ sentimental on ‘The Makings Of You’ (which can still make you crumble), and angry on ‘(Don’t Worry) If There Is A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.’ The LP is so full of classics that you may gloss over some, like ‘Other Side Of Town,’ with it’s swirling, paradisical harps that give way to lovely strings and horns. It sounds like heaven, but he’s talking about hell — poverty, desperation, depression. And yet there’s a triumphant air to how Curtis announces his origin. He’s found who he is, and he’s at peace with himself.

Flip 1: Nas, Papoose & Blaze – ‘Across The Tracks’ (Prod. by Swizz Beatz) [2006]

Nas has probably found knowledge of self, but he wasn’t so self-aware to leave out a funny line in this random Papoose collaboration. “I stay a good ni–a, don’t speak facts unless you correct,” says Esco towards the end of his verse. He’s known to be the quintessential smart dumb rapper, though, so maybe he’s just scolding his past self for various inconsistencies.

Swizz Beatz engineered this beat, which isn’t as much a beat as just a loop of a couple parts from ‘Other Side Of Town.’ Swizz has done this before – Lil Wayne’s ‘Dr. Carter’ comes to mind – and while it sounds dope, the technique signifies a sluggish laziness that runs throughout lots of Swizz’s post-Ruff Ryders work. The music doesn’t suffer, but perhaps Swizzy’s rep does. Then again, he’s probably too busy tinkering with Reeboks and running to help Alicia Keys every time she shrieks about being on fire to really care.

Now’s a good time to remember another guy who once had a smidgen of talent — Papoose. Yes, he once said he “conned ‘em like Trojan,” but when Kay Slay was pushing him in the mid-2000s, it seemed liked Pap might have had next (at least it looked that way through the distorted New York prism). He is, of course, nothing but a mixtape rapper, a guy so lacking in wit that he named his album ‘Nacirema Dream’ and thought it was actually clever. The highlight of Pap’s career isn’t even a song — it’s this ridiculous letter he wrote about ‘Nacirema Dream.’ When the album finally dropped in 2013, it sold 5,422 copies it’s first week.

Flip 2: Common – ‘The Neighborhood’ (Feat. Lil Herb & Cocaine 80s) [Prod. by No I.D.] (2014)

Common went from making rainy day rap with No I.D. to spitting over ‘Heat’ by J Dilla to dating Erykah Badu and making music to fingerpaint to. Then he got his head right and made ‘Be’ with Kanye, and for many of the people that still listen to Common today, that’s his definitive album, not ‘Resurrection.’ This week, he released his new full-length ‘Nobody’s Smiling,’ his tenth LP in over 20 years, but is he still relevant? The album is actually solid, thanks in large part to No I.D.’s complete control of production, but what does Common have to say in 2014?

‘The Neighborhood’ opens the project with James Fauntleroy singing about kids joining gangs, “trading our crowns for our souls.” When he’s done, No I.D. leads with a short flourish before introducing the Mayfield sample:

“I’m from the other side of town, out of bounds / To anybody who don’t live around / I never learned to share or how to care / I never had no teachings about being fair.”

It’s a genius way of incorporating the sample not only to make sense musically in the context of the beat, but ideologically in the context of the song and it’s images — 40 bottles, Samurai Suzukis, herringbone chains. Broken dreams scatter the ground while Reagan moves out and Bush moves in. Parties that pump rap let the people escape their own nightmares. The youth roll weed just to get out of their own minds. This is what happens on the other side of town.

Once Curtis says he never had any teachings, Common bursts in, namedropping specific gangs in Chicago. No I.D. brings the horns as if to announce Com’s arrival, and as the strings rise in the background, you can’t help but compare Common to Curtis. Both have hometown pride, despite whatever f–ked up stuff happens there. Both have made it through the turmoil to appear on wax, like arbiters of hope for those listening in the shadows. The fact that they’ve released beautiful music that sheds light on their terrible conditions at home only further emphasizes the power of their message. When Lil’ Herb eats the beat’s lunch, it’s another kind of announcement: the youth are taking matters into their own hands.

Mayfield’s horns and strings lay the lush bed for ghetto documentation to become a powerful weapon in the war against depression. No I.D. wins this week, and if his work on ‘Nobody’s Smiling’ is any indication, Vince Staples should have some more heat for his next project. Swizz’s beat jams but it’s just a quick snip-and-loop job – hardly inspiring. Maybe he knew Pap was gonna be on it. No I.D. handled Com’s entire album top to bottom, and his opening statement makes ‘Nobody’s Smiling’ intriguing if nothing else.

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