Nasir (released June 15, 2018)
Remember back in 2016 when Nasir Jones and DJ Khaled proclaimed to the world that “Nas Album Done?”
And we spent the next two years like
It’s safe to say that Nasir, Nas’ 11th studio album is NOT the album we were promised back then. And that’s fine. In just two years, it’s a totally different cultural landscape. And after learning that Nas locked himself in Kanye West’s Wyoming bunker as part of West’s seven-track summer releases, it seemed like the perfect recipe for the lyrically potent yet socially-conscious messages that made Nas one of rap’s GOATs.
Despite a classic catalog consisting of no less than three five-star albums – including Illmatic, the greatest rap album of all time, period – the one knock against Nas has been a somewhat-suspect beat selection. In Nas’ defense, his dense lyrical content often works best over subdued tracks. Buuuuut, those tracks aren’t always the most exciting offerings. With Kanye behind the board and Nas behind the pen, it should be a match made in hip-hop heaven.
Spoiler: the pairing does work but don’t let Gabriel sound those trumpets yet.
“Escobar season begins,” Nas announces on “Not for Radio.” The track’s haunting chants immediately place Nas in unfamiliar territory but he has no problem adapting:
Abe Lincoln did not free the enslaved
Progress was made ’cause we forced the proclamation
SWAT was created to stop the Panthers
Glocks were created for murder enhancement
For hunting men, circumstances
It feels like a verse plucked out of 90s Nas’ playbook. Speaking of 90s, Puff Daddy inexplicably shows up to yell random things in the background – he’s the original DJ Khaled, kiddos.
Nas’ kufi is firmly back in place on “Cops Shot the Kid,” where he speaks on “the disadvantages of the brown.” Shockingly, Kanye himself tucks away his MAGA cap to echo Nas’ narrative: “Tell me, who do we call to report crime/If 911 doin’ the drive-by?” I don’t know playa, ask Trump next time y’all are hanging out.
Unquestionably “Cops Shot the Kid” is powerful, but it showcases one of the biggest flaws of Nasir – and one of my biggest fears about the Nas/Ye tag team – the track’s Slick Rick sample is a bit too overpowering. The song’s biggest draw is it’s poignant lyrics but the hyperactive sample constantly drags your ears away from the meat of the track. It’s an even bigger problem on “White Label” – sure, it’s one of the best beats on the album but Nas is almost totally drowned out by it.
Save those beats for the Big Seans of the world. Nas doesn’t need smoke and mirrors to mask lyrical deficiencies. All eyes – and ears – should be on him.
That doesn’t mean that Nasir is completely crippled from overbearing beats, though. “Bonjour” is as decadent as you’d expect, with Tony Williams’ hook really adding to the proceedings. Speaking of hooks, both Kanye and The-Dream handle hook duties on “Everything,” and good lord, don’t expect those two to sound like Silk hitting high notes in 1999. The background vocals, thankfully, do the heavy lifting while Esco reverts to Nasty Nas, dishing out quotable one-liners: “When the media slings mud, we use it to build huts” and “My Kilimanjaro bone marrow’s the deepest.”
THAT’S that talk we’ve been waiting for since 2016, Esco.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: If you expected Nas to address those horrible allegations from ex-wife Kelis, you won’t find answers here. “Simple Things” certainly opens the door for that type of honest conversation but ends extremely abruptly, feeling like a promising, yet unfinished tale.
And honestly, that’s the story of Nasir. While I’ve been a proponent of Kanye’s abbreviated releases this summer, Nasir really needed to be fleshed out more. Instead of a fully satisfying release like 2012’s 5-star Life is Good, this feels more akin to 2002’s The Lost Tapes, a collection of solid songs (some of which are really good) but lack the cohesion of Nas’ classics.
Nasir is pretty good but it feels like a piece of a larger puzzle. Nas Album Not Quite Done.
Best tracks: “Not for Radio,” “Bonjour,” “Simple Things”
4 stars out of 5