The Experienced Listener Presents: Student of the Game, by N.O.R.E. aka Papi

Student of the Game Album Cover

Student of the Game Album Cover

So I’m ridin ‘round listening to NPR radio a few months back. And I hear a new song by N.O.R.E. …Yeah, Noreaga. On NPR. I had to pinch myself. Then I said, “WHAT-WHAT!!” , but it was more like “WH-WHAT??” As in, “What is N.O.R.E. aka Papi aka Animal Thug doing on NPR?? …NPR must be on the come-up!” So of course, when I got home, I checked to see if I could get that track in a combo meal. And there it was: a new N.O.R.E. album, Student of the Game. I’m pleased to say that N.O.R.E. has gotten better with time in ways I never even predicted. I don’t know if ya’ll realize how high this cat is on my list of favorite MCs, but I’m ‘bout to show you in this review…

Getting right into the first song and title track, Student of the Game greets the listener with N.O.R.E.’s first words on the album: “Hip Hop”. I wanted to pick a few lines out of the song to highlight, but the one verse he drops is so compelling that it would be robbery to not give you the whole verse. The song chronicles his troubled youth, where Hip Hop becomes an outlet to help him vent and create opportunities to not end up dead or in jail. Peep:

I feel like something special ’bout to happen/
Queens nigga but the meetings be up in Manhattan/
Move the packs fast, hoops ain’t full crick/
We up to cook another one, bullshit/
We should have the hood Olympics, a cook off/
Let’s see which coke is terrific and who is gifted/
With the coffee pot, baking Soda, cookie jar/
Let us separate the hustlers from the rookies ya’ll/
I knew enough Spanish not to get jerked when I bought work/
Plus plus, plus I let my gun off, beserk/
Got my cousins in the pink houses, never had job niggas/
They was into murdering, kidnaps and rob niggas/
I use to rhyme as a hobby in my building lobby/
Fuckin up ounces, take it back to quarters then/
Wholesales with StarKim, or even Sha Waterman/
Fast forward, got locked for a shooting/
Hit Spafford, back when Latin kings first recruitin/
Locked in the zone, mind separate – guidance counselor,/
I went to school with a weapon, not for protection/
Just to show it off, but I would really use it/
The power of the gun, it gave me strength, I would abuse it/
I never ever ever thought I’d make it out in music/
Started writing rhymes harder in the vision of youth/
Locked up, reading Donald Goines’s books/
Expanding my imagination, I got creative with the pen doe/
Started writing rhymes bout the streets, that was simple/
My persona, identified… hood pride, logical/
Wrote about the blocks, streets and the obstacles/
Man, this shit work when you think about it/
I mean I still get money when you think about it/
Rap, probably saved my life twice wit it/
I’m still nice wit it, let’s forget all the ice wit it/
Forget my accolades and other big things I did/
I was a wild kid, I would’ve ran up in yo crib/
Remember war report, CNN legacy/
Hip-hop pedigree, rhymes is a felony/
Student of the game, I take responsibility/
Give me tranquility, so niggas can’t belittle me/
I’m still doing what I do way past you/
This album’s home the heart, sorta feel like I have to/
Prove shit— do the new shit/
And the true school shit, wild with the deuces/
Little guns for the little dunns, yallah/
Laid back, in a leather couch, heroijuana/
Eye vision clearer, I love who I see in the mirror/
I couldn’t make that clearer/
Tryna compete with a real street nigga/
Doin street shit… you as soft as aloe vera/

Storytelling at its finest! And the verse is so introspective; it doesn’t just tell you what happened, but it gives you a view into N.O.R.E.’s psyche at different stages of the process. When he says in the beginning that he feels “like something special ‘bout to happen”, he isn’t kidding! I can relate to that moment— when you grab a pen and reality does the writing for you. That’s the peak of the art form.
I came across the next track on the project by way of video. Featuring French Montana, 2 Chainz, and Pusha T, it’s called Tadow, and that caught my attention because I haven’t heard that word since the 90s! Definitely a club banger— you can tell that by the featured lineup, right?— but the video is pretty entertaining, too. Gotta love the fact that N.O.R.E. keeps a healthy sense of humor to go along with his thugstance. …Yes, I just created that word. Peep the video:

Speaking of humor, Kevin Hart makes a guest appearance on the interlude just after Tadow. Which is the ultimate okey-doke, because what comes up after Tadow is nothing to laugh at…

This next track— oh my God, I thought the world had spun around backwards and I.A.E.N.O. it!! The night I first heard The Problem (LAWWWDDD), I tweeted N.O.R.E. that this song belongs on the G.I. Joe Retaliation soundtrack (I had just seen the movie, too). Noreaga dropping new music, that’s believable. But Noreaga going SUPERTHUG in 2013?! With The Neptunes on the beat and EVERYTHING?! As I was tweeting, I had the scariest thought: “They’re gonna play this song in a club one night and somebody’s actually gonna get killed to this. …Like, this song is gonna be the last sound somebody ever hears.” I gave my sister a listen and she didn’t even know what to make of the beat at first; the hi-hat is a military cadence, but then when N.O.R.E. gets into his verse the kick drum goes into a classic boom-bap. That’s GENIUS to me, because the album is called Student of the Game and the theme of the album is definitive, by-the-book Hip Hop. The synths on the track are frantic, too; like storm-the-home-court-at-March-Madness frantic.

…And did I mention N.O.R.E. has what, in my opinion, is his greatest, grimiest lyrical moment on this album:

You my nigga, Nigga, fuck how Nigga Oprah feels…/

(((O_o))) …When I heard THAT one, all I could say was, “LAWWWDDD that’s Noreaga!! That’s SO Noreaga!! He just called Oprah a nigga!!” Inside, I never really stopped laughing at that…

One privilege you attain once you become a vet is you get to sample yourself on a beat; the first thing you notice on the next track What I Had to Do is N.O.R.E.’s voice from the previously recorded I Love My Life:

Yo, I grew up like the regular thug, sold drugs/
Wasn’t proud about it, but this is what I gotta do/

N.O.R.E. then proceeds to drop wisdom, a trend I notice a lot of veteran rappers taking up in their more recent music. Deep down, it’s what we all hope for— that hard beginnings will result in hardened heroes who can spit a positive word to help the youth to grow in a different direction. N.O.R.E. speaks:

Peace to my street niggas; my hand to hand dudes/
That follow man rules, and give out samples/
Yeah, See I was you ten years ago/
But bloodshed, time served many years ago/
Brown skinned, but I can mix with a Spanish group/
I’m half of that, so half of that you can’t recup/
…You can’t find nuttin to live for/
You should find sumn to die for, therefore/
You should never hang around thieves/
Because you are who you hang with, like trees to the leaves/
I used to sell dope to the dope fiends/
And crack to the crackheads, by all means/

HEED THE WARNINGS HERE YA’LL— there’s something bigger than rap going on in these lyrics. Another one of my favorite MCs, Scarface from the Geto Boys, makes a guest appearance on the track with more soul-sparing admonishment:

I got the dopeman blues…/
Still out here payin dopeman dues/
So come here take a walk off in my dopeman shoes/
So I can show you muthafuckas how the dopeman do/
…Got niggas I been down wit deep/
When I say that they down, don’t sleep/
…I still got bloodstained hands/
From homeboys I lost to this fucked up plan/

I can’t even put in words how badly we need these old heads to come back and drop knowledge on tracks like these. Stories from the other side of the game; from hindsight, where life is finally viewed with 20/20 vision. LOVE this track.

Skipping ahead a bit on the album, let’s talk about why I like this track Fowl Niggaz. See, sometimes hardcore MCs go so hard that you forget they have standards at all. Kinda like that whole Molly-poppin’ fiasco with Rick Ross— frankly, I was shocked anybody made a big deal of it. After all, when we talk about robbin and killin and hoein and dopin, nobody flinches or bats so much as an eyelash. Fowl Niggaz has N.O.R.E. laying out a 2:20-long call-response list of no-go’s that even hardcore MCs shall not make allowances for. It’s a comical track, until he drops a line that comes down your street. For instance:

Niggaz thadda love to lie around you/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggas that’ll wear a wire round you/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggaz tip a bitch then they take it back/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggaz talk behind ya back, say you wack/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggas that’ll fuck right in front the children/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggaz still pissin’ right in front the building/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Niggaz that’ll tell you that they gotcha back/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)
Drama on, they don’t even call you back/ (FOWL NIGGAZ)

If you’re alive right now, you’re probably less than a mile away from at least one of what N.O.R.E. would designate as a fowl nigga. (You wanna laugh, except you realize how sad it is, so we’re gonna move on to the next song.)

Back to that song I told you that I heard on NPR. The track was Built Pyramids, featuring legendary MC Large Professor. …And also sampling Large Professor, by the way; if you’ve ever heard Lookin at the Front Door by Large Pro’s original group Main Source before, you’ll hear it sampled into the instrumental partway through N.O.R.E.’s first verse. Again, this album is about by-the-book Hip Hop, and by-the-book Hip Hop definitely involves the art of sampling. Now, when you’re sampling somebody like Large Professor, you’ve got to put some substance on the track. Once again, Papi goes in:

Fish scales from Jackson Heights Columbians/
I.S. 61 was raised for no republicans/
And I don’t mean to get all political/
But Mitt Romney don’t plan to do shit for you/

…I don’t’ mean to get all political either, pardon my selection of lyrics. I got into it with a Black Republican the other day, and this here blog is my lil platform so… #BAOW, chick!

…She was dead fine tho, no need to sugar coat it; she can fix her angry green eyes on me any ol’ time.

Now, here comes the #GRIT: Faces of Death featuring French Montana, Swizz Beats, Raekwon, & Busta Rhymes— you can probably already hear what this track sounds like in your head just by that lineup. Not to mention it’s the next to last song on the album, so they HAD to go hard on it. This is the stereotypical N.O.R.E. track that everybody thinks of when they hear the name; it’s good to see that he has evolved, but that he hasn’t put away his previous MC tendencies. Because, frankly, N.O.R.E. always could rock the mic. And I mean in the not-so-nice way; you’ll get smacked-up while listening to this track easily. Like, you might be in the comfort of your own house, and a random hand might just catch you directly in the face when you least expect it.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I was impressed with this album. And not just because I’m a N.O.R.E. fan; this is a dope album. First of all, it is an album, meaning it feels like a complete project and not just a bunch of songs thrown together. It features N.O.R.E. in various dimensions: you’ve got lyrical tracks, you’ve got club bangers, you’ve got storytelling tracks, you’ve got humorous tracks, a lamentation in the form of God’s Angel, and even an attempt at a “shorty track”— as my NY homeboy Joe puts it— in the form of She Tried To featuring Lil Wayne; it’s not romantic, but it sounds romantic, and that’s a fresh tone for Papi.
Something else that needs to be pointed out on this album: over the past few years, there’s been debate over and questioning of Noreaga’s potency as a lyricist. With that in mind, let’s just look at the first line of his song Vitamins (feat. Pete Rock):

You smell like pork like Kermit the Frog’s fingers/

…Hell, I’m convinced. What more do you need? That’s one hell of a creative line, I never woulda thought of that one. But in a way, I think lyricism can sometimes— SOMETIMES— blind listeners. Let me tell you why I like Noreaga: realness. In reality, do you walk up to the people you see on the daily and use complex speech? No, you get straight to the point. And I think sometimes we forget that, while Hip Hop values lyricism, Hip Hop also values realness and honestly. And when it comes to realness and honestly, there aren’t many who can be as real as N.O.R.E.; in a way, he’s actually a very soulful rapper. I’d rather get simplified lyricism and feel like I know the person I’m listening to than get lyricism so complex that I lose the identity of the speaker. But this album proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when he wants to, N.O.R.E. can easily blow your brains out.

…Lyrically, I mean. Not literally; lyrically. And that’s all I mean. I promise :-\

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