Author’s Note: To be completely forthcoming and transparent before diving into this review I want to acknowledge the fact that I am for lack of a better term a Nas Stan. I own a copy of every official Nas release ever dropped (including The Lost Tapes, Distant Relatives with Damien Marley and the 20th-anniversary special edition of Illmatic as well as copies of the first edition on both vinyl and cassette). Plain and simple I love the man’s music, I’ve been a fan since I was a pre-teen and literally grew up and came of age listening to his music. With his expansive catalog not only serving as a soundtrack to much of my life but, forever tied to some of the fondest memories I have as a youth coming of age.
When it comes to the discussion of the ‘greatest of all time’ in the Hip-Hop hall of fame, Nas is often amongst a handful of elite artists that invariably almost universally cracks any true Hip-Hop Heads’ top five list. As an expert lyricist, master storyteller and seasoned showman the Queensbridge veteran is widely regarded by fans and music industry contemporaries alike to be an emcee’s emcee, and your favorite artist’s favorite artist. As an emcee whose discography includes eleven solo albums, several collaboration albums and mixtapes far too numerous to all list here spanning over the course of a rocky but, nonetheless illustrious twenty-plus year-long career; Nasir Jones is often lauded as one of the all-time greats to ever pick up the mic and revered as a true living legend in the game. So when it was finally announced that after a six-year hiatus, a series of many, many delays and pushed back release dates I was extremely elated to hear that Nas would finally be dropping his 11th album this year in 2018. However, this excitement was quickly dampened when it was announced Kanye West would single-handedly helm the project and be the only sole producer featured on the entire album. While I tried my best to keep a neutral ear, as well as an open mind; my fears where quickly confirmed that sonically, Nasir would be a severe step backward not only from the mature subject matter and elegant production featured on his previous effort Life Is Good but, a complete diversion from that heard on previous releases in his catalog as well.
Nasir comes after a near six-year absence of Nas releasing music and follows his last endeavor, 2012’s critically acclaimed Life Is Good. A project which many critics and fans alike believed signaled a more mature and reflective direction for the Queensbridge veteran’s music; as he reflected over the loss of his marriage with his estranged wife and singer Kelis, his daughter Destiny Jones maturing into a young adult, lamenting over the various ups and downs throughout the course of a two decade-plus career. The album also marked a turning point for Hip-Hop as well, as one of the genre’s most celebrated and lauded figures also embraced the title of becoming an elder statesmen and a guiding force within the genre; as well a graceful embracing of age in a genre that is increasingly obsessed with youth and dismissive of its pioneers. Needless to say, after such critical claim and praise from fans and critics alike the bar was set astronomically high for Nas to follow up such a heartfelt, personal and intimate project like Life Is Good. Simply put, with an artist coming from a pedigree such as Nas’ having dropped numerous classic albums many fans have been expecting what should easily be yet another classic album to add to an already illustrious catalog. Nasir, unfortunately, is not that album.
Clocking in at underwhelming scant twenty-six minutes the ‘album’ is hardly even long enough to fill the length required for a typical lunch break. While the term ‘less is more’ is often thrown around a lot and sometimes even a welcomed surprise in a oversaturated and bloated genre filled with pointless, superfluous features and flavor of the month artists who disappear as quickly as they came; this only works if the end result product lives up to the quality that fans know the artist is capable of. Put plainly, Nasir is not a Nas caliber project. Short and simple. In fact, The Lost Tapes or even Nastadamus for that matter are superior, overall projects than the end product that Nasir is. Say what you will about the troubled and complicated release of Nastradamus, but at least that album managed to crack the one hour mark and featured the production of producers such as DJ Premier, Havoc, Timbaland and L.E.S.. Nasir makes Nastradamus sound like Illmatic in comparison. The album starts off promising enough with ‘Not For Radio’ a choral laced intro featuring the accompaniment of Puff Daddy and 070 Shake. Though the latter sounds out of place on a Nas release. Content-wise Esco treads in familiar waters, making various references to racism in America, it’s permanent entanglement to U.S. history, slavery, religion, and politics amongst many others which all relate to both the past and the present Black experience in America.
However, this initial momentum and glimmer of a promise are quickly doused by the constant reminder that this album is unfortunately very much a Kanye West helmed project. West delivers what are at best, boring, generic sounding beats; and at their worst manifest as downright annoying and excruciatingly irritating. Exhibit A being the album’s second track ‘Cops Shot the Kid’. This song is perhaps best summed up as a textbook example of wasted potential because it’s a track that could have easily been the most explicit opportunity for Nas to deliver a dose of gripping, deep cutting social commentary. Especially in a post-Black Lives Matter era and under the current abysmal state of affairs under an unrelenting Trump administration. For an adept lyricist and world-class storyteller such a joint should have been an unmissable slam dunk for an artist like Nas. An absolute home run that could have easily been knocked out of the park and near impossible to mess up. Instead, due to the ‘genius’ beat misdirection under Kanye West what the audience gets is a near three minute song where a two-second vocal sample from Slick Rick’s classic track ‘A Children’ Story’ repeating “the cop shot the kid” is repeated on a continuous loop again, and again, and again for the entirety of the song’s run time. The song is easily the absolute worst, most annoying piece of production Nas has ever rapped over during the course of his entire career. Additionally, the song only features one verse from Nas himself, the second being an uninspired set of bars from Kanye “slavery was a choice” West. However, personal politics aside, West who has never been very eloquent, nor particularly savvy or well versed when discussing social commentary just sounds out of place on the track. This odd choice is only made all the more confusing being that it’s one of only two songs featured on the album which actually contain vocals from West. Sadly, what could have been the album’s stand out track discussing the topic of police brutality and violence in America is unfortunately squandered by poor execution in the production department, West’s bumbling attempt at social commentary and plainly stands out as one of the album’s peak moments of disappointment and lost opportunity.
Unfortunately, the album’s subsequent offerings do little to redeem the album’s early missteps either. The track ‘White Label’ is by in large a forgettable joint, where Nas falls victim to the typical rap trappings and trimming of boasting the decadence of a luxurious lifestyle. While not an unusual trope of Nas to follow, all tropes do eventually get old and this one is certainly no exception, especially when it is one that is pounded to death again and again throughout the course of a very short album. ‘Bonjour’ which features a sung chorus from The World Famous Tony Williams, is, unfortunately, another forgettably boring track where Williams does most of the heavy lifting; being that hooks included a good half of the song’s 3:21 run time is carried by him alone. Much like ‘White Label’ the song sounds more like a throwaway track than something meant for an actual full studio album. Nothing much of any real depth is discussed and if anything the song simply lacks any real focus and comes off as something that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor in the studio. ‘Everything’ which features vocals from both The Dream and Kanye West is probably the single track that has West’s heaviest fingerprints on it during the course of Nasir. With synth heavy production that immediately recalls images of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak-era along with The Dream’s signature crooning, the song sounds like something that would sound right at home on a Kanye West solo album. The track is also by far the longest one featured on Nasir, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes and thirty-three seconds. Here, Nas actually does take a serious discussion about the deep pit that is materialism and the emptiness some feel perpetually trying to fill a void yet still never having enough. Nas even touches on his luxuries afforded to him as a multi-platinum artist as he reminisces looking back as an aspiring emcee who defied the odds to make out of the Queensbridge Projects and reflecting on the little habits he maintains to remind himself that worldly possessions are fleeting and can all be taken away in an instant. While The Dream/Kanye tag team choruses can drag on a bit past their welcome, Nas does manage to strike somewhat of an emotional chord. In an album largely devoid of deep subject matter, Nas manages to re-capture a tiny glimpse of that earnest, self-awareness and reflective pensiveness heard on many of his prior releases; sadly, however much like the nature of topic covered in the song itself, this attribute is fleeting, short-lived and not nearly enough. However Nasir isn’t completely devoid of highlights, and if there is one stand joint that does appear to resonate then the single highlight of the album is undoubtedly ‘Adam and Eve’. As the only point on the entire release that ever truly sounds and feels like a Nas album, ‘Adam and Eve’ is a slick, piano-laced track that evokes images harkening back to Nas’ mafioso era of the mid 90’s which was on full display on It Was Written and The Firm respectively. The song’s production truly is the single shining gem of Nasir and unfortunately the only one where Nas ever truly manages to find his rhythm on the album. Which is unfortunate, because in the hands of a more disciplined executive producer, and on a longer album with a wider variety of contributing producers and soundscapes ‘Adam and Eve’ would undoubtedly still be a standout track on any other release. However, because of the baggage and overall uninspired lethargy that plagues most of the album ‘Adam and Eve’ is instead regulated to the one single saving grace to be found on Nasir. ‘Adam and Eve’ is followed by the album’s closing track ‘Simple Things’ another synth-heavy offering where Nas celebrates his appreciation for the simple things in life. Touching on subjects such as being able to make music this late in his career, having his music studied in prestigious schools and the desire for nothing more but to maintain that peace for himself and his children. While the song does touch on subject matter deeper than a majority of the album it unfortunately does little to offset the rest of the album’s run-time. At a brief length of just barely over two minutes, the track is simply far too little, far too late and ultimately amounts to an underwhelming conclusion to an already disappointing and dismal album.
As much as it pains me to say, Nasir is not a good album, not by Nas standards at least. Is Nasir the worst album ever made? Absolutely not. Is it even the worst album of 2018? Again, of course not. In a point in time where the genre is seemingly overrun by talentless mumble rappers too numerous to list and the general state of the music is so uninspired even Dr. Seuss can be made to sound like a formidable emcee; Nasir is head and shoulders above a majority of contemporary releases out right now. Still, from the perspective of a seasoned Hip-Hop head and measured up against Nas’ past work, Nasir isn’t just a bad album; it is easily Nas’ worst album yet to date. While Nas lyrically delivers a few decent bars here and there, the combination of the project’s sheer brevity, lack of focus and absolutely abysmal production selection from West is simply far too much for even the most generous listener to simply gloss over and overlook. A majority the album just simply sounds more like an EP comprised of outtakes and throwaways that were never actually meant to see anything but the cutting room floor; let alone serve as the meat and bones of an actual official studio album. Perhaps the biggest let down in regards to Nasir is the fact that at the end of the day it is a painfully dull, lethargic, boring listen. While the prospect of a Nas/Kanye West album could invoke a variety of feelings and emotions from which to describe such a project, boring is certainly not one that should come to mind when discussing either of these respective artists. This rings especially true considering the veteran status touted by Nas and the unpredictable and unstable nature which has increasingly come to both polarize and define Kanye West whether for better or for worse. If there is one upside, perhaps it should be noted that Nasir is a mercifully short listen, although it’s unlikely many long-time fans of Nas will find solstice in that sad detail. Likewise, now that it is known Nas is willing to sit down and work with a single producer for the entirety of a single project perhaps there is still hope that fans might one day still see the mythical, long fabled Nas/DJ Premier collage album come to fruition which has long been discussed and rumored about for well over a decade (although I wouldn’t hold my breath).
At the end of the day Nasir disappoints not only for what it is not, but what it could have potentially been. Again, coming off the heels of Life Is Good, Nasir should have been a continuation of further exploring deep, complex and mature themes as Nas himself ages and further cements his status as not only a pioneer within the genre; but a highly respected figurehead within the greater culture as well. But instead, ultimately what we are given is a rushed, soulless project that sounds more like Kanye West’s table scraps than a album worthy of a official from Nas himself. While it’s impossible to know for sure how long Nas actually locked in to complete this latest effort, if this is the best he could muster up in the span of over six years, then perhaps it’s best for him to transition to a role of executively producing projects and gracefully pull back from a career of being a full-time recording artist. Because, in short what Nas has delivered is nothing more than a hallow, uninspired shadow of the master storyteller and expert lyricist Hip-Hop heads the world over have come to love. However, as a long time fan one can still hope that next time around Mr. Jones will put a better foot forward on his next release and hopefully not make fans wait six-plus years for less than half an hour of material. However, in the end only time will tell.
Nasir is currently available on digital platforms as well to stream on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, Prime Music and iTunes. Physical copies on vinyl, cassette and CD are available and can be purchased exclusively on Nas‘ own official website.
Full Album Track Listing & Credits:
1. “Not for Radio” (featuring Puff Daddy and 070 Shake)
2. “Cops Shot the Kid” (featuring Kanye West)
4. “Bonjour” (featuring Tony Williams)
5. “Everything” (featuring The-Dream and Kanye West)
6. “Adam and Eve” (featuring The Dream)
7. “Simple Things”