Review: ‘Nasir’

The long-awaited Nas album is a scattered political opus rather than the confessional declaration many expected.

Six years on, Nas album is done. Depending on who you ask, Nas is the greatest rapper of all time. Regardless of the GOAT debate, those who knows their hip hop history are aware of the accolades of Nasir Jones. Across his 24-year career, Nas has delivered the greatest hip hop album of all time, a memorable artistic slump and one of the most significant rap beefs ever. The last album Nas released was Life Is Good, back in 2012 – arguably his strongest album of the past two decades. Since then, Nas has spent his life in seclusion. News of his eleventh album being complete was announced in the form of DJ Khaled’s “Nas Album Done”, released in 2016. No album came, until Kanye West decided to offer Nas the chance to produce his entire album. The hypothesis here is that, just like Pusha T, Nas scrapped whatever album he recorded to follow Kanye’s executive instructions.

Simply put, Nasir is Nas’ political opus, driven by a 44-year old stream of consciousness. The stream often overflows, but the quality of the production and concept demands Nasir to be treated as a genuine album rooted in the fundamental aspects of hip hop.

Across Nasir, Nas touches a variety of sociopolitical bases, cramming references to pro-blackness, Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slavery and anti-establishment in the epic “Not for Radio”. The theatrical production and 070 Shake’s interruption steers the messages towards a grand opening to Nasir. The following song, “Cops Shot the Kid”, uses Slick Rick’s “Children Story” to depict the unjust execution of African-American children by police (“White kids are brought in alive / Black kids get hit with like five”). The imposing sample constantly clashes with Nas’ rhymes which takes some adjustment to handle sonically, but also creates a chaotic illustration of the mayhem on the streets when police come from around the corner. From the jump, it becomes clear what Nasir is rooted in and what inspired Nas to dust off his pen.

One major criticism throughout Nas’ career has been his so-called lacklustre production, even addressing the critique on the final track (“Simple Things”). With Nasir, he has a chance to silence critics through the beats of the most inventive producer of this generation. To no surprise, Kanye West continues his streak of impressive production, morphing Iranian, Bollywood and 80s rap samples. “Adam and Eve” is plucked straight out the 90s, a head-banging canticle led by piano, as is “White Label”, an Escobar-meets-Batman decree of braggadocio.

Never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses they purchase
Without production I’m worthless
But I’m more than the surface
Want me to sound like every song on the Top 40
I’m not for you, you not for me, you bore me

–Nas, “Simple Things”

The personality in the production continues across further songs. “Bonjour” sounds expensive; a lavish soundtrack that could play over a movie montage of a couple on extravagant dates in Venice. The strings and repeated “ooo’s” produce an additional scene of Nas walking into a ballroom, his suit glistening under the chandeliers while on the look out for the girl in the white dress.

This is all impressive at first, but when researching the original samples it becomes clear that West doesn’t flip them as creatively as possible. The production centres around one-dimension loops rather than building upon them to create structurally-challenging compositions. Considering the week-by-week deadlines set by West during his GOOD Sumer rollouts, it would not be surprising to conclude that the production on Nasir was rushed.

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Although Nas puts information out there, the intent is relatively weak. The seven-track format fails Nas in particular moments, as he wishes to pack as much knowledge as possible in seven songs when the format demands him to be succinct. In “Not for Radio”, Nas dedicates a line each to his various conspiracies, listing his beliefs rather than dissecting them.

Oddly enough, the inconsistencies in fleshing out the subject matter doesn’t plague all the tracks. Just like Nas, Kanye West’s guest verse on “Cops Shot the Kid” stays loyal to the topic, delivering a verse in line with his durable verses on Kids See Ghosts (“Tell me, who do we call to report crime / If 911 doin’ the driveby?”)

“Everything” is the pinnacle of Nasir, and represents what Nas required structurally for the other six songs. For 7-and-a-half minutes, Nas spits three verses to cautiously develop his thoughts that are elevated by the gentle singing by Kanye West and The-Dream, providing some of the album’s best lines (“People do anything to be involved in everything / Inclusion is a hell of a drug”). The finest touch to the perfect track is the angelic vocals by Caroline Shaw, giving chilling flashbacks to the beauty of opera in previous Kanye–produced songs (“H.A.M.”)

However on “Everything”, among others, Nas’ rapping is surprisingly weak. Lines like “If Starbucks is bought by Nestlé, please don’t arrest me / I need to use your restroom and I ain’t buy no espresso” barely rhyme, and there are plenty other verses across Nasir where Nas raps with no flow, clumsily spraying desolated lines over the beat. The more you listen, the more this becomes a problem for an album that is tremendously close to a grand comeback.

The seven-track format may fail Nas lyrically, but not conceptually. Every track corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins, either precisely or loosely. “Everything” represents the sin of greed and “Bonjour” depicts lust, while “Not for Radio” and “Cops Shot the Kids” are in line with wrath. The other strongest correlation is “White Label” with pride (feeling too self-satisfied). The ego of Nas on “White Label” is astronomical; his pride is on an all-time high. The concept is not without its flaws, but without this theory Nasir is severely misunderstood.

Layin’ on the most expensive beds, still I’m losin’ sleep
Next to Jet‘s Beauty of the Week 1993
Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter
Blouse-ripper, ass-gripper, that dig-you-out n^^ga
I ain’t gon’ hold you, old head gave me old news
I don’t owe you, shoulda heard when I told you

–Nas, “White Label”, Verse 1

Since its release, critics have slammed Nasir for its refusal to address the allegations made by Nas’ ex-wife, Kelis, ultimately concluding that the material on Nasir is weak as a result of this omission. However, Nas has every right to keep his private life to himself, and the public should not feel entitled for answers on an album when Nas could be addressing the issue outside of his music. 2012’s Life Is Good heavily focused on Nas’ relationship and divorce with Kelis to the point where her wedding dress laid on Nas’ lap on the album cover. As personal as Nas can be, it is his art that should not demand biased entitlement by the listener.

The lack of focus and rusty rapping is what holds Nasir back from being a potential masterpiece. As a rapper who has been in the game for over 24 years, it is understandable that it would be hard to find inspiration to fuel new material. Ideas that Nas is exceptionally capable of conveying in-depth are toyed with loosely, not pairing up his normally-immaculate poetry with the immaculate production. Oddly, it’s Nas’ own skill that is the achilles heel of Nasir. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another six years for the next one.

Rating: 7 / 10

Favourite tracks:  “Everything”, “Not for Radio”, “Cops Shot the Kid”, “Adam and Eve”, “White Label”

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