Nas is easily one of the greatest story tellers in hip-hop history. His catalog is lined with noteworthy examples, with songs like the underrated “Pussy Killz,” the non-linear masterclass “Rewind,” the conceptually-charged “I Gave You Power,” and the historically reflective “Last Real N**a Alive.”
Whether he’s recalling a fragmented memory with startling detail or building an entire track around a fleshed-out narrative, storytelling is one category that Nas has scored a ten on ten. On his brand new album King’s Disease II, he continued the tradition with another welcome dose of hip-hop history, “Death Row East.”
Fans may have noticed that Nas has been opening up about his complex relationship with 2Pac in various interviews; in a coincidental turn (or perhaps not) an unreleased freestyle surfaced in which Nas took a few jabs at his former foe. Perhaps seeking to reshape the narrative, Nas took to the booth and proceeded to paint a picture.
The New York native transports listeners back to the nineties, when Suge Knight’s Death Row Records was casting an impenetrable shadow over the game going so far as to extend over the East coast. Nas tips his hat to the label’s undeniable presence in the chorus. “I had run-ins with Suge, ni**as would’ve been shook,” he raps, alluding to the feud between East and West. “At the height of the beef, they started Death Row East , Damn, I even saw their tees on some of my Gs on the Notorious label, the story was made in the streets.”
Positioning himself and his Braveheart compatriots as “the smartest, not hardest,” Nas alludes to his confrontation with 2Pac, which occurred during the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards in New York. “Back when Jungle told Pac, “It’s on” soon as we walk up out this Picket signs, Outlawz outside the music hall,” he raps, recalling how Jungle stood up to Makaveli. “Bunch of ghetto superstars really down to lose it all or Both sides was thuggin’.”
In the second verse, he opens with a bar that basically summarizes that tumultuous hip-hop era: diamonds and MAC 10’s. It sounds flashy, glamorized to those disassociated with the lifestyle, but Nas wishes he had the benefit of hindsight. Still, he did intend to squash the feud with Pac, taking the steps to do so. “Before Makaveli the Don left, booked a flight, flying out West,” he recalls. “We was tryna squash the whole shit in Vegas and No media to eat it up and leak it in the papers.”
What’s interesting is the way Nas recognizes the extent of Death Row’s impact, grounding it with anecdotal evidence gleaned from his surroundings. “See Suge, he was a dangerous threat,” he raps. “M.O.B. almost turned half of New York red Brothers I grew up with threw up they sets. Some even had them Death Row chains hang off their necks.” It’s noteworthy that Nas draws a connection between Suge and the ( M.O.B) Members Of Blood, a gang to whom police claimed Suge has ties. As Nas explains, their influence even permeated the East Coast, no doubt fueled by the excellent music Tha Row was dropping.
Nas also makes sure to dispel the rumor that 2Pac was set up by the late rapper Stretch, though he doesn’t elaborate further. His assertive tone seems to indicate a deeper knowledge of the topic, but perhaps some topics are better left alone. He does make sure to conclude on an inspiring note, outlining his intention to settle the beef with Pac and move forward as collaborators. In a spoken final message, Nas explains the route he might have taken to rebuild what was destroyed:
“I flew to Vegas to shoot the “Street Dreams” video and link with 2Pac. Tried to squash the East Coast and West Coast beef. We didn’t talk, but he was still alive in the hospital. And it rained that day in Vegas. Rest In Power.”
“Death Row East” closes out with a sobering moment, a snapshot of reality that really contextualizes the death of 2Pac Shakur. Consider that there were no internet headlines breaking the news, nor social media, or even a chain-reaction of text messages. For a number of hip-hop fans, the news of Pac’s death was broken by then-Hot 97 host Ed Lover, who announced the tragedy during a Nas concert of all places.
Those who listened to the song in its entirety heard Ed Lover’s announcement, which Nas used as a bookend. Imagine — hearing about the death of a rap superstar at a concert, and all the complex emotions that might surface given preconceived notions on Nas and Pac’s dynamic. In the full video, embedded below, Ed Lover stresses how certain things run deeper than rap. “You might have heard about a beef 2Pac got with Nas,” explains Lover, addressing the stunned crowd. “We can recognize a brother that passed away. I don’t give a fuck what 2Pac said on a record, no matter what he didn’t deserve to die that way.”
It’s a testament to Nas’ pen game that “Death Row East” has driven many to reflect on the past, and how things might have gone under different circumstances; when all is said and done, it’s songs like this that will ensure that hip-hop history is preserved.
Rest in peace 2Pac Shakur, and much respect to Nas for adding yet another compelling story to his expansive shelf.