Nas album done.
The first time I read those three words together was 2016. DJ Khaled's decision to have Nas attach his album announcement to his Major Key contribution was marketing genius. The public reacted to the news with the elation and excitement of children on Christmas Eve.
New Nas is all people cared about. His absence, which was at the time four years, was long enough to be missed. Almost 25 years after the release of his classic debut, Illmatic, and the people were still anxious to hear the gospel of God’s son.
Almost two years later, Nas has finally delivered his 11th solo album, NASIR. But my personal anticipation changed forever on April 26. That is the day Kelis conducted her interview with Hollywood Unlocked and revealed information about her marriage that was previously unspoken. The celebrated singer went into great detail about the physical and mental abuse that unfolded during her four-year marriage to Nas. “Did he hit me? Mhmm. Did I hit him back? Mhmm,” Kelis specified. “He would black out. He would drink too much. He drank way too much. He will never admit it ... so a lot of the stuff he may not remember.”
It’s chilling to hear Kelis describe how she felt after the picture of Rihanna’s badly beaten face surfaced following her physical altercation with Chris Brown. “I felt like, 'Do I jump in? Do I say it?' Cause I had bruises all over my body at that time," she confessed.
The accusations made by Kelis paint Nas as a violent alcoholic who regularly attacked her. The interview went viral, rippling across social media. Kelis' eye-witness account of their marriage didn’t alter hip-hop's universal desire for a new album, but there were whispers of wonder regarding whether or not Nas would address her claims on the album.
In 2016, Nas releasing an album was simply the end of a long hiatus. In 2018, it means the end of silence surrounded by a loud controversy. How will he confront the allegations? Will he apologize? Will he deny them? Does he even owe us an answer? Once again we stand at a crossroads between a man and an artist, and how it’s impossible to separate the two. Nas album is done, executive produced by Kanye West. A hip-hop dream in the midst of a moralistic nightmare.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules here are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Godspeed.
1. “Not For Radio” ft. Diddy & 070 Shake
This is such a Nas title for a song. The strings and choir are far more daunting than soulful. Puffy! Thank God this isn’t “Hate Me Now.” Decent drums with a great sample. Nas sounds great. He's nailing every bar. His voice hasn’t been touched by age. This production is open enough for his wordy but enthralling style. EXPLOSIVE DRUMS! HARD! 070 Shake is snatching another strong feature. She really was a great pick up by G.O.O.D. MUSIC. The loop is hard. Nas is talking history. A Black Panther reference, no T'Challa'. I hope Nas never publishes a history book. The impromptu Puffy pop-ups are great. This is the Nas that people have waited for. The content would’ve fit Untitled. I really have to sit with this one to digest everything, but the production is excellent. The Puffy interlude with Shake’s vocals is a Sunday morning service. A great Puffy rant. He’s pumped up. We need to rank all of Puffy’s rants. [Editor's Note: We did.] This is some black power superhero music. “We see that bitch in your eyes” should be Puffy’s catchphrase. Soft keys to close.
2. “Cops Shot The Kid” ft. Kanye West
A Richard Pryor clip. I love the vintage pop in my ears. Slick Rick sample! “Children Story” will be here until the end of time. Kudos to Kanye for chopping up The Ruler. This is Grandma's basement dusty! A nice bass. Very infectious production for such a heavy concept. If you’re going to preach, it’s always best over production that grabs the audience hostage. Nas sounds like he is narrating a Spike Lee film. Spike Lee and Nas is something the world needed in the ‘90s. With the political climate of 2018, this is exactly what I wanted from Nas. Emmett Till reference. Nice little bridge with just the loop. I think he stacked the vocals. That scream is terrifying. KANYE! He brought the backpack to Escobar season. Boom bap Yeezus. I don’t know what was going on during the making of ye but Kanye's rapping has been much better as a featured guest during his five-album summer project. I like his verse better than Nas'. Nas had better content, but this is a great Ye flow. These lyrics are what he should’ve been tweeting. I’m so exhausted by his shaky politics, but this is a great, timely song. Can someone please send this loop to Ice Cube? My gut tells me he would breath fire.
3. “White Label”
So far so good. A haunting build up. Someone talking. A chopped-up sample. This is a neck breaker, I’m in love. Never imaged Kanye returning to the crates after all these years. Nas over the loop with no drums. A million for a feature? Nas must think Jeff Bezos wants to build. I guess it’s important to know your worth. Losing sleep on an expensive mattress is a hilarious brag. Nas puts words together with the smoothness of a slick talker who makes every sentence poetry. Even when he’s boasting it’s accomplished with eloquence. The loop just got freaked and the flow is following suit. Many of these verses seem to be Nas just musing with no specific direction. Alright second verse, he’s reminiscing. I would listen to a lecture on any subject over this beat. He just made a nod to the Kanye production. Great breakdown. This weekly dose of gorgeous production is really spoiling me.
4. “Bonjour” ft. Tony Williams
Smoother than Pimp C in a chinchilla-fur coat. Soul music with an old school knock. I'm not loving Nas' flow on this one. Far lighter than the previous records. Who is that singing? Tony Williams? He sounds incredible. We need an album, Tony. Okay, this is a record. A grown and sexy rap record. It's grown on me. Production is beautiful. The kind of beauty that makes you think about Stevie Wonder’s voice and summer sunsets. Nas sounds alright, his verse is solid, but this is far from his most interesting performance. A good concept was given to the wrong artist. Bars about investing money. Tony Williams is scoring touchdowns with these vocals. So far, "Bonjour" is the only song where everything is enamoring except for Nas. It has replay value, though. Kanye blessed this man with a beat as white as a bride’s wedding dress. I would get married and honeymoon in this last 20 seconds.
5. “everything” ft. The Dream & Kanye West
Singing. Someone with a pleasant voice. The-Dream! Is that Kanye? Whoa Whoa. A Kanye and Dream duet is blowing my mind. This sounds as soft as an angel feather and as elegant as a Disney princess. This is sonically beautiful. Ear candy. I can’t believe Kanye’s singing. He’s vocally grown since the 808s & Heartbreak days. The-Dream is a Hall of Fame feature. He’s singing to the dark boys. A lovely high note. Some very strong pro-black themes. Timely music driven by stellar production. Kanye and choirs are the best combination since tacos and tequila. More singing from Ye. He’s talking about wishing to change everything. Nas! The drums for his verse are a little too thin for my taste. They should’ve just let his verse sit on top of the choir. Nas is preaching. I can’t catch the bars that well, but it’s a verse about the state of the world. He sounds very aware, unlike someone else we know. The second verse is sharp. What? He said something about children and shots… Is this a verse about vaccines? Nas gonna Nas. I take it all back. This record is way too long for how the beat drags during his verses. We need a Dream and Kanye seven-song duet album. I don’t know how much I’m going back to this one, and that would largely be because of the production during the chorus.
6. “Adam and Eve” ft. The Dream
Back to the loops. The ghetto Othello, a nice nod back to his “Success” verse. I wish his flow was a bit more lively, but I’m still being held by every word. He’s always been a mellow rhymer, but he sounds more relaxed than usual. Another production winner. I almost confused The-Dream for Mos Def, I apologize. This is the kind of hook his voice would be perfect for. A lot more bite on Nas’ second verse. Vivid wordplay. A lot of lifestyle talk. He’s either reminiscing or painting the present. Based on these lyrics, Nas’ life is still good. Applaud this loop for being perfect for Nas; these keys were made for his voice. An enjoyable third verse. A shot at the pigs, no 12. Genius is going to be booming all weekend. Plenty of lyrics to dissect. I’m not certain if he really dove into the Adam & Eve concept. Nas hasn’t delivered any wild concepts with this album. Sorta surprised. This album sounds like a man who just wanted to rap. Which is fine, but where’s the material with some heart?
7. "Simple Things"
The choir greets you at the beginning. It’s a grandmother's hug to start your day. So far sounding like a winner. “Want me to sound like every song on the top 40.” I’m pretty sure any rapper who is still rapping into their 40s no longer cares about radio spins. We need a term for grown man braggadocious music. I like that Nas can gloat about prestigious schools studying his lyrics. Exquisite production from front to back. Ye gave Nas beats pathed in gold to spill ink over. Not in love with this one, though. "Simple Things" is easy on the ears, but it doesn't end the project with a bang.
NASIR (first listen) closing thoughts:
Kanye West did not let Nas down. NASIR is rich with sonic flavors able to appease fans who grew up on Nas of the ‘90s; those who wish to hear the veteran appear on sounds untouched by time. All the production Ye has turned in this summer has been pristine, but NASIR sounds like the best batch.
As for Nas, the lyrical approach taken on NASIR sounds far looser and lucid than the rapping on his last album, Life Is Good. Nas is still passionate about delivering political and historical messages, and they’re buried throughout the album with a sprinkling of Kodak moments from his past, but there’s not much that instantly touched me. The blame here could fall on the seven-track length, a case of brevity backfiring. The success rate of this format varies based on the artist. But it also could be Nas, who decided to stay above the surface instead of digging deeper.
With a pen still capable of being mighty, and with a delivery unaffected by modern influence, NASIR is Nas living up to his technical prestige but without the heart that we've become accustomed to over his career. The lack of personal depth is an immediate disappointment. Nas didn't owe us transparent introspection, but avoiding any direct mention of Kelis is disappointing. NASIR is what I imagine 4:44 would be if JAY-Z decided to not share the personal details of his private life and instead focus on luxury, lifestyle lyricism and social commentary.
NASIR is a pleasant album. Kanye was able to piece together a musical paradise for Nas’ prose. It sounds as if his words were carved onto a pavement of gold. But while Nas can still be thoughtful and intricate, NASIR ultimately left me wanting more. Much more.
Instead of showcasing a side of Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones that we've yet to hear from, the esteemed living legend decided to play it safe.