Archive for October, 2013

It’s 2013 and the NBA is in the midst of a golden era of point guard play. The league is chalk full of ultra-talented floor generals who can score, dish, and defend (sometimes). It seems as though every year for the past 8 or so years, a young point guard enters the league and stakes a legit claim to be considered top 10. Some continue to improve every season and are always in the discussion, while others wade in the middle of the pack without achieving their full potential.

I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of criteria for ranking point guards for a while now. Should I put a greater weight on rebounds or steals? How much should their team’s success factor in? Would I rather a guy average 20 and 7 or 14 and 11? Do I count Derrick Rose? These are just some of the questions that I’ve considered when coming up with this list.

However, the one question that stands above all others is this:

Which point guard best helps my team win a championship this year?

That’s really what it’s all about. I want the player who’s going to lead my team to the promise land and get a ring. The guy who has the right mixture of talent, leadership, IQ, skill set, and killer instinct to make my team the best it can possibly be. The player who has the biggest balls on the court, for lack of a better term.

That’s how I based these rankings. Playoff experience and performance played a big factor for me, so most of the guys you’ll see in the bottom five are either young and on bad teams that haven’t made the playoffs, or they haven’t performed well in them. Raw scoring ability is a plus, but I put more weight on the assists for the point guard position.

So here are my top 10 point guards that can help your team win the 2014 NBA Championship.

10. Jrue Holiday

When I watched a young Jrue Holiday at UCLA, I never thought I’d be discussing him as a top 10 NBA point guard. He seemed to lack a little bit of everything in his game, so I figured he’d be just another lottery pick that was pretty good, but never good enough to lead a team. Well, after four years in the league I think it’s safe to say I was wrong. Holiday has blossomed into one of the league’s most promising young point guards with the potential to lead the young core of the New Orleans Pelicans back to their first playoff appearance since a certain other point guard left. Holiday’s best asset might be his size. At 6’4, he’s got a couple inches on most of the other guards on this list. Because of this, he’s deceivingly quick.  His length allows him to finish in the lane over and around smaller guards. Overall he’s been a pretty consistent shooter throughout his career, hovering around 43% from the field and 37% from three. Last season he took a huge step forward in distribution, averaging a solid 8 assists per game, nearly double the 4.5 he averaged the previous year. He does need to take care of the ball better, though. He turned the ball over almost 4 times per game last year. If he wants to take the next step in joining the game’s elite point guards, that number needs to be cut in half. I’d also like to see a little back to the basket post game developed. He’s got the size and the length to do it, so I hope one of his coaches has him watching Andre Miller tape. Also the jury is still out on whether or not he has the killer instinct gene in him. Hopefully the Pelicans have success so we can see for ourselves.

9. Mike Conley

A lot of people will disagree with putting Conley in the top 10, but I really like his game. His basketball IQ is as good as anyone’s, and he’s proven himself to be a cool customer in the big moment. I put a lot of weight on playoff performance, and Conley has proven in the past few years that he can go toe to toe with the best point guards in the Western Conference and not miss a beat. If I had to describe his game in one word, it would be “smooth.” All of his movements and his demeanor are just smooth. Last year in 15 post season games (all against point guards ranked higher than him on the list), he upped his averages in every major statistical category. He’s got quick hands and is always among the league leaders with over 2 steals per game. Pessimists would say that Conley benefits from playing on a very well-balanced team. True, but he’s the engine that makes the team go. He knows how to get everyone involved, which can be tough down the stretch of playoff games considering it’s basically “Throw The Ball Into Zach Randolph On The Block” time. When defenses collapse on Randolph and Gasol, Conley has proven he can consistently knock down the three ball in key moments, which is something every team needs from their starting point guard. Conley is the perfect example of playing himself into the top 10 conversation through playoff performances.

8. Kyrie Irving

Most of the pictures I’m using for each player were completely random and I chose them based on nothing at all. However, this one above I chose for a reason. I’m a Celtics fan, so naturally I believe Avery Bradley is the best on ball defender in the league. Well last January I watched Kyrie Irving torch Bradley for 40 points, which made him skyrocket up my list of favorite players in the league. The kid can flat out score. He made Bradley look like a high schooler. He hit shots from all over the court with all sorts of hands in his face, but nothing could stop him. He’s the type of offensive player that can get in a zone, and when he’s in that zone, it’s over. At the young age of 22 and only entering his third season in the league, the sky is the limit for Irving. The Cavs beefed up their roster this offseason and are expected to make a run at the final playoff spot in the East. This is a big season for Irving for that reason exactly. The expectations are finally in place for his team, so missing the playoffs will be a disappointment. He needs to step up to the plate and show us that he can elevate not only himself, but his teammates to the next level. The only real criticisms of Irving are his lack of rebounding (3.7 RPG) and the fact that he’s injury prone. He played in 51 games his rookie season, and 59 last year. He also missed a large chunk of his only season at Duke, but was still picked number one because of his undeniable talent. Now that he has a decent supporting cast, I expect his assists per game to jump from the 6 he averaged last year, to closer to 8. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he averaged 25 points per game either. He’s that good. Kyrie Irving is a superstar in the making, and this year will be a telling sign of what we can expect from him in the future.

7. Deron Williams

If basketball was purely based on statistics, one would assume Deron Williams was a top 3 point guard in the league, which is what he was considered to be a few years back. However, his lack of leadership and tendency to disappear in the big moment has led to him falling out of grace with many NBA fans and writers, including myself. The guy’s talent is off the charts. He’s an offensive force that can’t be guarded when he’s on his game. He’s a big, wide body that can move quicker than most. His crossover is filthy and when he gets the inside shoulder on a defender, he’s too big and strong to stop. He’s consistently averaged 20 and 10 for his career, while making all-star teams and winning two gold medals with Team USA. So why is he all the way down at number 7? Well, to be honest, I just don’t think he has the balls to win. I don’t think he can be THE guy on a successful team. Last year his Brooklyn Nets got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. He was straight up out-played by Nate Robinson. There was no reason the higher seeded Nets should have lost that series. They should have taken care of business and went on to play the Heat. But teams follow their leader, and I can’t think of a more apathetic combo to lead a team than Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. However, it’s been a big offseason for the Nets, with the acquisition of future hall of famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (still so sad). Williams will finally be playing with a couple of the league’s all time greats who have won a championship. Maybe this is the year Williams breaks out of his shell and develops a killer instinct. Maybe he won’t have to because he can defer to more seasoned veterans who shine in the spotlight. Either way, the Nets need to win now. So if Williams can’t do it now, I don’t think he ever will.

6. Steph Curry

Steph Curry is another player who I watched tear it up in college, but never thought his skill set would translate to NBA success. Boy was I wrong. Curry’s 2013 post season was an absolute thrill to watch. He’s one of those guys you want to shoot the ball every time he touches it, no matter where he is on the court. Everything he tosses up looks like it’s going in, and it usually does. He had his best season last year, averaging 23 points and 7 dimes per game. He shot 46% from the field, 45% from three, and 90% from the line. What exactly does that mean? It means the guy is efficient as hell and takes good shots. He grew up as the son of NBA player Dell Curry, and you can tell he’s been around the game his whole life by his confidence, calm demeanor, and high basketball IQ. Oh, not to mention the silky smoothness of his shot. When Curry steps on the floor, he’s like an offensive bomb waiting to explode, and this last playoff run for the Warriors let everyone in the league know that he’s here and he’s one hell of a problem. Curry has improved his command of the game so much since entering the league. Occasionally he’ll make a boneheaded pass, but he’s not really a natural point guard so it’s understandable. I’ve been most impressed with his ability to create and shoot off the dribble. When he came out of college he was deadly coming off a screen and catching the ball on the run for a one-dribble shot or drive. Now, he’s a primary ball handler who reads the pick and roll extremely well and forces defenders to jump out on him because of his quick release and deadly shot. For the type of exciting player he is, I couldn’t be happier that he’s on a team like the Warriors, playing in Oracle Arena in front of those fans. It’s the perfect storm. Curry is the type of player you can literally feel getting hot, and Oracle is the type of venue where you can feel the tension and excitement rising through your television. I look forward to watching Curry improve his defense and overall point guard play. He’ll turn 26 this season, so his time is now. The Warriors are definitely a top 5 exciting team to watch this year.

5. Rajon Rondo

Oh Rondo. As I mentioned before, I’m a lifelong Celtics fan. I’ve watched Rajon Rondo develop from Danny AInge’s “project,” to an NBA champion, to an all-star starter. I’ve watched games where I’m on my knees thanking God that the Celtics have Rondo, and I’ve also watched games where I’ve cursed him out for his questionable play. It’s the definition of a love/hate relationship, as I’m sure most Celtics fans can attest to. But let me put my heart aside for a second and look at Rondo objectively. Besides Lebron James, he’s the biggest threat in the league for a triple-double on a given night. He’s proven to be a dominant force in the playoffs. He’s the best rebounding point guard in the league. He’s a pass-first guard with an incredibly high IQ. He sees the court as good as anyone in the league. He’ll give you 10 assists on an off night. These are all major pros on our imaginary venn diagram. However, Rondo does have some glaring cons. He can’t shoot. Plain and simple, the guy just isn’t a natural shooter. Everything looks so mechanical coming out of his hand. People who defend Rondo’s shooting will say that he had one of the highest field goal percentages for a guard last year. Doesn’t matter. If you watch the guy play on a nightly basis, you know he flat out can’t shoot. This allows defenders to sag off him and help on big men. Rondo also has a tendency to shy away from driving to the hoop and drawing fouls in the final minutes of a game because he lacks confidence in his free throws. There have been varying opinions from teammates and ex-teammates on Rondo’s mentality. Some say he’s a great teammate, others (cough Ray Allen cough) think differently. He sometimes passes up wide open shots or fast-break layups in order to pad his assists. It’s a frustrating cycle rooting for Rondo, but when it comes to playoff time, he brings his A-game. He averaged a triple double in that epic Bulls series in 2009. He dropped an absurd 44/8/10 on the Heat in a losing effort during game 2 of the 2012 Conference Finals. He has seven career playoff triple doubles, and averages 17/7/12 and 2.5 steals for his playoff career (92 games). The point is, Rondo gets the number 5 spot because of his unique skill set and flare for he big moment. He’s proven he can do it with Pierce and Garnett, but this season is the one where we see what he’s really made of. If Rondo can increase his scoring and keep his assists above 10 while rebounding the same, he’ll keep his spot at number 5.

4. Derrick Rose

Two years ago, Derrick Rose would have been number 2 on this list, but missing an entire season dropped him a couple spots. A lot of people wanted Rose to come back during the playoffs when he was cleared to play. I was not one of them. First of all, why screw up the chemistry of a team that’s been playing without you for 82 games when you aren’t a full 100%? It just doesn’t make sense. Second, let the man come back when he’s ready. Watch his game. It’s all based on athleticism and explosiveness. He’s a decent shooter, but getting to the rim and rising up to finish is what makes Derrick Rose the incredible, exciting player he is. So if he doesn’t feel like he can play his game, let him wait. But let’s look at what Derrick Rose brings to the table. He’s going to give you 20-30 points per game, 6-10 assists, and a few highlight-reel plays that can shift the momentum of a game to the Bulls. He’s crazy aggressive in the open court and when he gets a head of steam going, he’s as sure a finisher as anyone but Lebron. He’s proven to be a clutch performer (the 09 series against the Celtics was unbelievable to watch a rookie do what he did), and he’s the type of guy you can give the ball to down the stretch, clear out, and let him make something happen. But maybe most important, Rose is a natural leader. He reminds me of Tim Duncan because he plays the game completely stone-faced, but has the complete trust of his teammates and coaches because they have 100% confidence he’ll lead them to victory. His actual game is much flashier than Duncan’s, but they each have the leadership intangible that you can’t teach. I’m extremely excited for Derrick Rose to play again. Anyone who’s a basketball fan should feel the same way. Let’s hope he’s fully healed and is back to his normal self, because it’s a treat to watch him play.

3. Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook is a freak athlete. Along with Rose, I’d consider him to be the most freakishly athletic point guard to ever play the game, He gets to the hole in ways that I’ve never seen before. He can jump so far and cover so much ground in the air off the dribble that pull-ups and floaters for other guards end up being layups for him. Also like Rose, he attacks the hoop mercilessly, aggressively, and with no regard for his or anyone else’s body. Few people play the game with the kind of ferocity that Westbrook does. He’s got a long, successful career ahead of him and if Oklahoma City can keep him and Durant happy together then there should be a championship or two as well. However, having said all of that and dishing out all that praise, I have a confession: I don’t really like Russell Westbrook. I don’t like the way he bitches and moans about everything on the court. I don’t like how he celebrates every bucket like it was the game winning shot. I don’t like how he dresses for post-game interviews. And I REALLY don’t like how he jacks up contested three pointers down the stretch of games without looking to see if anyone is open, or looking to get the ball to his teammate, the most gifted scorer in the league. He’s the type of player you don’t want on your team playing pick up. He’s a black hole, and he lets his emotions get the best of him, sometimes taking it out on teammates. So why did I rank him #3? Well, because all it takes is one game of watching him to see how talented he is. He may be lacking in the cerebral portion of the game, but his talent more than makes up for it. He’ll always average between 20-25 points per game, dish out 7 assists and grab 5 rebounds. If he can work on limiting the turnovers (3.6 career average), and being more patient down the stretch of close games, he’ll be a hall of famer. He and Durant have been blessed with the opportunity to play their careers together on a good team in front of some of the league’s best fans. If they never win a championship together, it will be a HUGE disappointment.

2. Tony Parker

Tony Parker lacks the flash that most of the other point guards on this list possess. He doesn’t have stats that jump out at you, and he doesn’t really look like your prototypical top 5 point guard. But Parker gets it done, and he gets it done better than almost any point guard in the league. He, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili have been the three pillars of the Spurs dominance over the past decade-plus, earning three championships together and losing in last year’s epic 7-game Finals to the Heat. He was the MVP of their last championship victory in 2007. In terms of team success, Rondo is the only other player on this list that has a ring, so that goes a long way for me ranking him this high. There’s no statistic to measure composure and experience in championship games, and Parker is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else on this list. He’s been the best player on the Spurs for the last four years or so, taking a team that formerly was called “boring” because of their defense-first mentality, and revamping them into one of the league’s most efficient offenses. His improved mid-range pull up has forced teams to fight over picks, giving him more chances to use his quickness to get to the rim, which is what he’s best at. The Spurs have done a great job in surrounding Parker with knock-down shooters like Danny Green, Gary Neal and Matt Bonner, while of course he has the Big Fundamental to throw the ball into down-low. (Side note: Duncan’s efficiency is unreal. We take for granted what he does year in and year out. He’s a top 10 all-time player when it’s all said and done.) Parker will give you around 20 points and 7 assists every night, and he’s always ready to make the right play in crunch time. Emphasis goes on the word RIGHT. I think that’s what makes Parker so great. He knows and trusts the guys around him, so rarely will you see him force a bad shot. His IQ won’t let him. All of the guys on this list might be more talented and athletically gifted than him, but to me, Tony Parker ranks above all but one point guard in terms of potentially leading your team to a championship…

1. Chris Paul

…and that one point guard is Chris Paul. A couple years ago there was debate as to who was the best point guard in the league. Well, I think now it’s universally agreed that Chris Paul is a level above every other point guard in the league. He’s everything you want from your floor general. He’s supremely talented and extremely smart. He’s fast up and down the court and quick in the half court set. He handles the ball like it’s a yoyo on his finger. He can drive, finish, and knock down the three when presented. He finds passing lanes that nobody else on the court knew existed. He’s basically the GM for the Clippers and helped turn that franchise from a constant bottom-dweller to a legit championship contender overnight. There would be no “lob city” without him. He leads the league in steals on a regular basis. He’s a team first guy who’s mentoring a group of young, talented players on the fly. He’s one of the league’s best ambassadors and is now the President of the NBA Player’s Association. He brings his best during playoff time as well, averaging 21/9.5/5 for his post season career. Basically, Chris Paul is as close to a perfect point guard as you’ll find in the NBA right now. The only thing missing from his resume is a championship. The addition of NBA champ Doc Rivers will surely help the Clippers come playoff time. The last two years they’ve come up short of the conference finals and anything less than a finals appearance this year will be a disappointment. Now that I live in LA, I’ll be watching the Clips on a nightly basis. I will look for them to improve greatly throughout the season because I know Doc will be throwing stuff at them that a lot of the younger guys haven’t even heard of before. It’ll be really fun to watch Doc and Chris Paul’s relationship grow. They’re both brilliant basketball minds and I believe great things are in store for the Clippers this year.

So there you have it. My top 10 NBA point guards for the 2013-14 season. The first two I left off were Ty Lawson and John Wall. Wall gets hurt a lot and hasn’t elevated his team any further than they were when he arrived. Lawson could be swapped with Jrue Holiday, but I felt Holiday’s size makes him more effective.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m some idiot who doesn’t know basketball? It’s all good. This is an opinion piece to get discussion going. Let me know your top 10.

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“Too much lyricism to digest, I do it on purpose. Two of my bars are more lyrical than two of your verses.”

– R.A. The Rugged Man – “Tom Thum”

Terribly underrated and often ignored, R.A. The Rugged Man is a name-drop among hip hop heads to test the credibility of one’s love for the genre. Most might know him by his award-winning Verse of the Year on “Uncommon Valor (A Vietnam Story),” but if you’re not familiar with the man’s work, take the $10 you’ve got in your pocket and cop this album on iTunes. I will guarantee satisfaction.

Rugged Man doesn’t put out any bullshit. It’s been 9 years since he released his debut album, “Die Rugged Man, Die,” through Nature Sounds. He has a strong underground following because he values quality over quantity, which is something I truly respect in a musician if they do it right. As an independent artist, he has no corporate backing and a limited budget (AKA this mother fucker does shit on his own, for the love of the game). So before I even review the album, when I say take that $10 and buy this dude’s album, I mean it. As hip hop heads, we NEED to support artist’s like Rugged Man who are unique voices in sea full of conformists.

Now to the album.

Standout Tracks: “Tom Thum,” “Learn Truth,” “Legends Never Die,” “Sam Peckinpah,” “The Dangerous Three,” “Still Get Through The Day.”

My personal favorite track is “Tom Thum.” Rugged Man demonstrates an unbelievable mastery of the flow over a production that changes frequently throughout the song. He’s known for spitting lines upon lines at a fast rate without taking a breath, and he addresses this talent. “I don’t need to breathe when I rap I got gills fuck lungs.” The second verse is one of my favorite of the year especially when the beat cuts out and he raps, “I’m at the Best Western tossin’ your girls salad with some french dressing.” Listen to this track a few times just to make sure you don’t miss any of his genius lines.

Learn Truth” is the lead single, and rightly so. With the help of fellow hip hop vet Talib Kweli, they provide a socially conscious narrative of the world we live in today. Many consider this to be RA’s best verse since “Uncommon Valor” and I can’t fault them. He finds a way to say what many young American’s are thinking, all while giving us a history lesson and making that shit sound dope over a fire piano riff.

Rugged Man enlists Brother Ali and Masta Ace on “The Dangerous Three,” and wouldn’t you know, they all step up to the plate and knock it out of the park. Brother Ali gets down right gritty on this track, which is something we all like to hear him do from time to time. Masta Ace is like the Vinny Testeverde of hip hop, just steady putting up numbers (quality verses) for over 20 years. On “Sam Peckinpah,” Vinny Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks trades lines with Rugged Man in the old school Beastie Boys/Nas and AZ style of rapping. I wish more artists did records like this, because it shows versatility and chemistry. When I hear RA and Vinny going back and forth, I picture them hanging out, shooting the shit, and spitting for fun. It’s something new artists lack that needs to come back.

While we see Rugged Man’s humor and raw lyricism on most tracks, “Still Get Through The Day” and “Legends Never Die” will bring a tear to your eye. “Still Get Through The Day” is almost like a self-help song. He tells about his cousin, sister, brother and father who have all passed on from disease or drugs, but makes sure to let you know that at the end of the day, “It’s a miracle just being born. Learn to enjoy life.” So true. Life’s a precious gift and we have no control over when it ends, so value that shit. “Legends Never Die” is an ode to his late father, and by the end of the song if you don’t feel emotionally moved by his words, then you’ve just got a big steamy dump in your pants. His producer Mr. Green flipped the “Halo” sample by Beyonce and turned it into an upbeat production with extremely heartfelt content by RA. Simply put, the man loves his father more than life itself. He had such a strong influence on RA, teaching him “combative green berets tactics,” and about “Crazy Horse and his tribal glories.” We’ve all lost someone who has meant a great deal to us, and hearing RA tear up at the end of his last verse will bring back the feelings you had for that person.

It’s truly refreshing to hear an artist on the level of RA stick to his guns and not sell out. The content of this album wouldn’t have been possible if he had to bow down to a corporate label. He’s got an incredible flow and the brains to match. When I heard he was dropping an album, I got excited because I knew he would bring the heat, and he didn’t disappoint. Remember that $10 you have in your pocket? If you support independent artists who do all the leg work on their own and want to hear a quality album that ranks among the best of 2013, hit up iTunes and download “Legends Never Die.”

The Album Combo Project: Jay-Z

Posted: October 4, 2013 in Music

So here’s installment number two of my experimental game, The Album Combo Project (I still think the name sucks so feedback, please). In the first installment we looked at my personal favorite rapper of all time, Nas. There were times in that post where I blatantly said that he can do things Jay-Z can’t, which I stand by. Some of you may have taken that to mean I don’t like Jay.

False. Jay-Z is probably my second favorite rapper after Nas. I just think the content of Jay’s rhymes can get a little old (guns, money, bitches, you know the deal). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love the guy’s entire catalog. He’s the definition of rags to riches success. In my opinion, the most successful rapper of all time. He’s done songs with just about everybody, has the finest chick in the game wearing his chain, and enough money between them to make Floyd Mayweather blush.

When it came down to choosing my two favorite Jay albums, it was easy. “The Blueprint” and “Reasonable Doubt” touched me in ways that none of his other albums did. I think lyrically he was the most on point and hungry during these  two. The production on “The Blueprint” is only a step below “Illmatic” in terms of consistency, and “Reasonable Doubt” is also up there with “Illmatic” as one of the best solo debuts in hip hop history. The only other album I considered putting on this list was “The Black Album,” but I quickly scrapped that idea because for me, it doesn’t come close to the other two. Great album, but not on the level of these.

Ok, so let’s get into this. Same rules as before. “Reasonable Doubt” has 14 songs, “Blueprint” has 15, so we’ll round down and use 14 songs total, seven from each album. Here at last is my 14 song Jay-Z Album Combo Project.

1. “Dead Presidents II”

Jay had two songs back to back on his debut that were produced by the little known Ski Beats, and they were probably the two best songs on the whole damn album. “Dead Presidents II” is as smooth a record as you’ll find. The catchy piano riff will be stuck in your head for hours until you listen to the song again and get your fix. This was back when Jay was still in his Jazz-O phase with sped up rhyming. He shows the quickness at a few points during this song, but doesn’t go off the grid too much. Overall a classic joint that goes down as one of the best in his career.

2. “Renegade”

Produced by and featuring Eminem, this record helped thrust “The Blueprint” into classic status. Most of the album was produced by Kanye and Just Blaze, who both have distinctive sounds. But towards the end of the album when “Renegade” comes on, you can feel the different energy brought on by Shady. Now let’s call out the giant elephant in the room…Eminem absolutely beasted Jay on this song. So much so that Nas referenced it in “Ether” and it was deemed a crushing blow because it was so true. But I don’t fault Jay for that. Rumor has it this song was the last addition to the album and I don’t think Jay could have prepared himself for the onslaught them Em would bring to the track. Doesn’t matter to me though. It’s a banger and a half.

3. “D’Evils”

Where did all the Illuminati rumors begin for Jay? I don’t know, but if you really want to look at where it’s first referenced in a song of his, look all the way back to the DJ Premier produced, “D’evils.” Premo brings the heat as usual, with a beautiful sounding piano sample that will have your head bobbing for the duration of the song. Jay starts off the song with the classic line, “Shit is wicked on these mean streets,” and goes from there to talk about the drug game and how it haunts him. Preem and Jay got together twice more on “Reasonable Doubt,” but this remains my favorite out of the three.

4. “Heart of the City”

“What’s all the fuckin fussin’ for? Because I’m grubbin more? And I pack heat like I’m the oven door?” Awesome line, showcasing the theme of the song: you make it big, and all the people who had your back coming up start hating. The love fades. “The Blueprint” was Kanye’s coming out party as a producer, and this track has probably stood the test of time better than any other of his tracks off the album. It also helps that it was the theme song to “American Gangster” and has been used in car commercials.

5. “Regrets”

Don’t ask me why I have such love for this song, I just do. Ok go head, ask me why. Basically I was in high school and had just smoked an L with my boy. I dropped him off and was by myself driving to a friends house. This came on and I zoned the fuck out for the duration of the song so bad that I totally missed the turns that led to my friend’s house. The synth and bass really stuck a chord with me (pun intended) and to this day I get brought back to that time many moons ago when I hear it. The chorus is a pretty well-said rule of life, too.

6. “Girls, Girls, Girls”

Girls, Girls, Girls. We love ’em all, don’t we guys? The way Jay structured each verse in this song is what really stands out to me. He takes four bars to describe a specific type of girl, does that three times, then wraps them all up into the last four bars by using each girl’s stereotype. Just Blaze really captured the essence of the song with his patented orchestra and soul samples. My favorite bars: “Now that’s spanish chick, french chick, Indian and black. That’s fried chicken, curry chicken, damn I’m gettin fat. Arroz con pollo, french fries and crepe. An appetite for destruction but I scrape the plate.” Amazing.

7. “Brooklyn’s Finest”

Biggie pretty much cosigned Jay on this one, and what better title than “Brooklyn’s Finest?” That’s what they were at the time, and it still rings true. They match bars back and forth to a much quicker and up beat production than a lot of songs off “Reasonable Doubt.” I actually think Jay’s performance on this song was better than Big’s. There’s no denying how catchy a line like, “I’m from Marcy I’m varsity chump you’re JV” is when you’re rapping along with him.

8. “U Don’t Know”

When I first listened to “The Blueprint,” this was THE standout track for me. His wordplay and the production blended so well together that I considered this to be my favorite Jay song for a very long time. From the second the song starts, he puts his foot on the pedal and doesn’t let up until the song ends. I don’t think anyone will ever rap about being a hustler quite like Jay did in the beginning of the third verse. “I sell ice in the winter, I’ll sell fire in hell. I am a hustler baby I’ll sell water to a well.” I mean, who the hell comes up with that? Simply incredible work by Jigga on this one.

9. “Can’t Knock the Hustle”

Track 1 off the debut was soft, simple, and beautiful. He teamed up with the Queen of Hip Hop Mary J. Blige over a simple drum beat and bass line to make a classic. The title of this song really set the stage for what his rap career would be all about: hustling. Like “Dead Presidents II,” you can hear the Jazz-O influence still present as he quickly rhymes through parts of his verses. Favorite line? “My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me. He tried to get a nut and he got a nut and what!”

10. “Ruler’s Back”

Just like I wrote about with Nas’ “Stillmatic Intro,” I think “Ruler’s Back” was a perfect tone setter for the whole album. The production had that live band feel to it which I love so much. At this time, Jay was making his claim for King of New York status, and by calling himself the ruler he let everyone know that he wasn’t messing around on “The Blueprint.” It may not be the best song lyrically, but I think it’s place on the album was extremely important.

11. “Feelin’ It”

If you’ve never felt the high that you get from the lye and raised you’re L in the sky to this song, please go purchase some weed, roll one up, and go for a cruise while jamming to this. It’s a smokers classic, which is funny because Jay makes it known in this song that he only smokes “every once in a blue when there’s nothing to do.” This was the other song produced by Ski Beats on “Reasonable Doubt” and it’s still in heavy rotation for me. Once you hear that piano riff in the beginning, you just sit back and relax while letting Jay take you on a lyrical ride through the joys of the herb.

12. “Izzo (H to the Izzo)”

I guarantee I’ll get a lot of hate for picking such a mainstream song, but can you really argue? I still remember going to get back to school clothes with my Mom and hearing this on the radio. EVERYONE knew this song. When you sample The Jackson 5’s “ABC” and mix it with one hell of a catchy hook, you’ve got a hit my friends. So save the hate for another day. This song belongs on the list because it’s a classic. End of story.

13. “Can I Live?”

This song holds a special place in my heart because I used to listen to it while I was falling asleep. The beat is just…tranquil. Hypnotizing even. The horns and the light cymbals just put me in a zone that most other songs can’t do. I don’t really have anything to say about this song lyrically. This one was purely for the smoothness of the Irv Gotti production.

14. “The Takeover”

You didn’t think I’d leave this off, did you? Of course not! Now, as much as I praised “Ether” in my Nas Combo and said it’s levels above “The Takeover,” I still love this song. It bumps and has the catchy, head-nodding beat to match. Some of his lines against Nas were good. “Yeah I sampled your voice you was using it wrong. You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” But to me he really shit on Mobb Deep good. Saying he has pictures of Prodigy as a ballerina, and asking if one of them has sickle-cell (I think they actually do). Good stuff here from Jigga. Also, when my dad can recognize a sample in a hip hop song, you know the production was tight. He never thought he’d hear Jim Morrison and Jay-Z on the same track.

There you have it. Another Combo Project down. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Whatever you feel, it’s your opinion. I just like to spark discussion. Either way, you can’t deny that this is a dope playlist.

The Album Combo Project: Nas

Posted: October 2, 2013 in Music

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Do you ever have a debate in your head that you think about on a reoccurring basis and never definitively answer? Today, I was on my way home from work listening to Nas and asking myself that oh so common question, which album do I like better, Illmatic or Stillmatic? Now a lot of heads will call me crazy for even suggesting that any album could be better than Illmatic, but this is just my opinion. I discovered real hip hop when I was 14 years old, so I came up on everything at the same time. There was no time for Illmatic’s place in history to set in with me because I was fiending for any song, album, and artist I could get my ears on.

While I was going back and forth in my head, I came up with an interesting idea. A game of sorts that can be applied to any form of music. I call it the Album Combo Project (open to any name suggestions, by the way). Here are the rules.

– Use an artist or group’s two best albums or mixtapes if they’re that dope. (Note: this is all opinion, so the best can be your two favorite)

– Add the number of tracks to get the total for both albums, then divide by two to get the average (round DOWN if it’s not a whole number).

– Create a playlist that’s as many tracks long as the average using both albums.

– Interludes/Intros/Skits don’t count as tracks unless you want them to.

– You have to use a certain amount of songs from each album. Since I can’t figure out how to explain it in words, I’ll just use our first two albums in the Combo Project as examples.

  Nas – Illmatic – 9 tracks (not counting “The Genesis”)

  Nas – Stillmatic – 14 tracks

14 – 9 = 5. There’s a difference of 5 tracks between the albums. Divide 5 by 2 and get 2.5. Again, round this number DOWN if it’s not a whole number. Our number is 2. I can use 2 more songs from Stillmatic if I choose to because that album has more songs than Illmatic.

Those are the only rules so far, so let’s get started.

What better place to start than my favorite hip hop artist of all time, Nas. At age 40, the man has done it all for half his life and is widely regarded as the best lyricist of all time. Illmatic might be the greatest pure hip hop album ever, and Stillmatic was his “comeback” to reclaim the King of New York throne after Biggie’s death and being called out by Jay-Z. Both albums mean a lot to the hip hop community and to me personally, so understand I thought long and hard about this shit. It’s all opinion though, so chime in with your own, too.

Without further adieu, here’s my Nas super album tracklist.

1. “New York State of Mind”

Start off with one of the grittiest records ever. This was Nas announcing his arrival. It’s one of Premo’s best tracks too which says a lot. Whenever him and Nas get together magic happens, and this was the start of it all. Not to mention the true story of Nas doing the whole song in one take. Legendary producer meets legendary emcee and beautiful music is made.

2. “Rewind”

I rarely see “Rewind” mentioned among the greatest lyrical performances of all time, but I seriously think it belongs in the discussion. I mean, how many rappers can tell the story of a night with some booty turned drive-by shooting with that much imagery and flow…backwards. Saying phrases backwards, spelling words backwards. I always point to this song when involved in the Nas/Jay-Z argument because let’s be serious, Jay could never do this.

3. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”

The closing song that ended Illmatic, letting everyone know that Nas was the new standard in MC’ing. It wasn’t hard to tell that this 20 year old from QB had SKILLS out the wazoo. Large Pro sampling the smooth saxophone for the chorus made this record a stand out.

4. “One Mic”

On Stillmatic, Nas was perfecting his story-telling and imagery. Just as “Rewind” told a street story, “One Mic” captured an intense exchange between Nas and cops with the production and beat build matching the lyrics perfectly. The sirens sounding as Nas’ voice becomes louder and more emphatic gives this song incredible feeling.

5. “The World Is Yours”

Ah, Pete Rock production at its finest. The jazzy piano cuts, the horn matching the snare hit, and of course Escobar’s incredible flow. This record had it all. Premo has stated that he had a couple beats going for the album, but when he heard what Pete Rock did with “The World Is Yours” he went back to the lab to step his game up.

6. “Rule”

As one of Nas’ mainstream hits, I think “Rule” gets overlooked as a quality classic track. It gave us a glimpse into the more socially conscious Nas that we see so frequently now. His message is simple as he repeats it during each chorus: Peace. We all have a responsibility as humans to take care of ourselves, each other, and the world in general. Hip hop needs more songs like this to reach mainstream status.

7. “Life’s A Bitch”

Can we all just take a moment to thank Nas for allowing one guest feature on Illmatic? Putting AZ on this track showed how much Nas believed in his talents. Now, 20 years later we can truly appreciate how right he was. AZ’s opening verse goes down as one of the greatest in hip hop history. He does nothing short of murder this track. Nas was no slouch either, which is why I always love when these two get together for a project. They each step up to the plate and deliver their best, while flowing off each other flawlessly.

8. “Ether”

I mean, what else needs to be said? This, along with “Hit ‘Em Up” are THE standard in hip hop battle records. Poor Jay-Z didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Nas let the world know within the first 5 seconds what the deal was. “Fuck Jay-Z” were the words that blasted through the speakers of everyone waiting to hear how Nasty would respond to being called out. He then went on to destroy Jay-Z and Rockafella as a whole. After the world heard “Ether,” there was no dispute about who won the fight. “The Takeover” is multiple levels below “Ether,” but hey it didn’t hurt Jigga’s career too much. I hear that guy is doing OK for himself.
9. “Halftime”

This was the first single off Illmatic. Nas and Large Pro teaming up for another classic. The thing that impresses me about Illmatic is the fact that none of the songs really have hooks. It’s just someone saying the name of the song title on repeat. Nas doesn’t need catchy hooks to grab your attention, all he needs is 16 bars and a beat. Large Pro kills it with the bass line and the horn sample again.

10. “Stillmatic Intro”

I’ve loved this track since the first time I popped Stillmatic in the CD player and heard the beat drop. “They thought I’d make another Illmatic, but it’s always forward I’m moving, never backwards stupid here’s another classic.” His ability to rap, but make his lines sound like he’s talking to you making a point is uncanny. This is why I made the rule about intros being optional to count as a track. “The Genesis” has no rapping and is strictly an instrumental with Nas and AZ talking over it. But the “Stillmatic Intro” jumps right into Nas spitting flames at us.

11. “One Love”

Nas has always been about having themes or concepts in his songs, and “One Love” is one of his most perfect masterpieces. Nas writes letters to his homies locked up in the first two verses, telling them of all the happenings in the hood. He uses verse three to explain how sometimes he needs to get away from the struggle and just chill by himself for a while, which is something everyone can relate to. Q-Tip brought the Tribe sound to Nas and wouldn’t you know, he killed it.

12. “2nd Childhood”

Another concept song where Nas uses each verse to describe a different person that we can all say we’ve known at some point in our lives. The person who never accepted the responsibilities of being an adult and continues to hang around in the streets with younger people doing immature things. This was a Premo beat that took me a bit to come around on because it’s VERY choppy, but once you have the ear for it, it’s a beautiful song. Like I said earlier, when these two get together, magic happens. Premo has said he wants to get together and do an album with Nas, so we can only hope that he comes around at some point.

Boom. Twelve songs. All classics. Straight fire. If you’re looking to introduce someone to Nas, this would be a great start.

Hardest omissions were Memory Lane, Represent, and Got Yourself A Gun. I wanted it to be six songs from each album because I truly love them equally. And you know I gave this list legit thought because leaving off two Premo classics was tough.

My next installment of the Album Combo Project will probably be for Jay-Z, using The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt. I’m thinking about using Liquid Swords and Cuban Linx as the two best solo Wu Tang albums, too. We’ll see what happens, but for now feel free to chime in with your opinion on my list.