NASIR: Nas Let Me Down (For the Second Time) - DJBooth

Nas Let Me Down (For the Second Time)

"Here is an emcee, known for opening up on wax about his failed marriage and child support woes, who suddenly went thoughtless."
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It was late last Thursday night. Like many of our readers, I was glued to the Mass Appeal YouTube channel, waiting for the listening party for Nas' 11th solo album, NASIR, to begin.

For what seemed like hours, I kept reloading the stream. Not out of excitement or anticipation, but out of a compulsive need to confirm my worst suspicions. 

Once the stream came alive, the album was in media res, interspersed with dead silence and muted video between tracks; it was enough just trying to find my bearings. As the video played, I kept asking myself why I was sitting there, in the quiet hours, waiting for something improbable to happen.

It was hard to make out most of the material, much less enjoy it, but the stream did turn into a fun game of Where's Waldo? There were shots of media members and occasional famous faces, all huddled together and swallowing up the epicenter of the crowd where Nas and Kanye West presumably stood. I spotted 2 Chainz, whose 6'5" frame towered over most of the crowd. I could also see Kanye’s hand raise occasionally in elation before a particular beat dropped. 

I couldn’t find Nas, though.

Eventually, during the initial playing of “Adam and Eve,” a Dream-assisted record that samples Kourosh Yaghmaei’s 1974 track “Gol-e Yakh,” the cameras cut to a close-up of the main attendants in the middle. There was 2 Chainz stoically nodding his head, Kanye West smiling ear-to-ear as his creations filled the night sky above the Queensboro Bridge, and Nas, back to the camera, awkwardly grooving to his own music. I took in the image around him: a closely huddled group of men, almost insulating Nas from the rest of the crowd, from the rest of us watching, or maybe even the world.

As predictable as it probably sounds, Nas' work was one of the main reasons I got into hip-hop. Listening to him as a kid felt instructive for not only how to understand the institutional struggles at the very core of a culture that I was only a guest in, but a set of guidelines for how to create layered and fertile lyrics that one could endlessly revisit. He was perfectly imperfect; a masterfully dedicated lyricist, painfully corny and at times ridiculous, who never once felt like he outgrew the environments and institutions he grew up within. Despite his notoriety and status, Nas was always the formidable underdog, constantly fighting against more finely-tuned industry names, or at least those with better discographies, yet never compromising to be anything less than his imperfect self.

I admired that humanity in him. His artistic blemishes became his signature birthmarks; his deepest valleys as an artist (Nastradamus, Street’s Disciple) always felt like necessary mistakes meshed with nearly unrivaled creative peaks. No matter how awkward the beat (“K-I-SS-I-N-G”) or forced the lyrics felt (“Hero”), there was a charisma inherent in that type of fearlessness, and it’s what allowed him the ability to be so vulnerable when it mattered the most.

For those reasons, albums like God’s Son and Life Is Good always stood out in Nas’ catalog, not because they were objectively better than his two classics (Illmatic, It Was Written) but because they encapsulated the emotional and narrative filters Nas never seemed to have. Records like “Dance” and “Bye Baby,” for however effective they may have been, work because of what they represent for Nas as a narrator, never too far removed from their own humanity, or others’, to venture into their own heartache. Like Tupac before him and JAY-Z after him, Nas found a way to show how little success and fame had a hand in correcting the biggest struggles in your life.

Aside from "Oochie Wally," I assumed Nas would never let me down, but that is exactly what happened on April 27. That is the day Kelis, Nas’ ex-wife, in an interview with Hollywood Unlocked, opened up about her physically and emotionally abusive marriage with Nas. Her account, riddled with stories about drunken, blacked-out physical abuse by his hands, toxic jealousy, and paranoia, was heartbreaking. I believed her wholeheartedly, replaying the interview several times to watch as she described Nas, in almost a detached disbelief, as a reckless monster unwilling to even confront his abuse. At several points during the interview, even as the interviewer tried to steer her from overt self-blame and responsibility for a marriage filled with uncontrollable fights and hidden abuse, Kelis’ confession opened up even more troubling questions. Why did Nas abuse her? Had he prevented this from becoming a story sooner? Would he address it? And if so, when?

In the nearly two months that passed between a Kanye tweet about a new Nas album and the NASIR listening event, Nas said nothing. Foolishly, I assumed Nas would respond to Kelis' allegations at some point on the new album. That address never materialized, either.

Operating within an industry that has repeatedly valued male artistry over female humanity, more specifically black women, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I kept thinking about that humanness that I gravitated to in Nas’ music and the lack of anything resembling it in Kelis’ interview. She wasn’t describing a fearless creative, but a closet abuser whose only apparent saving grace was that he had an ex-partner willing to restrain and move on rather than publicly condemn.

There are plenty of positive things I could write about the inner workings of NASIR. It’s a brief album, and one void of the quintessential filler tracks that have haunted every Nas album post-Illmatic. Kanye’s executive production cements an extremely solid foundation from which Nas is allowed to flex faux woke bars on “Not For Radio” and dense lyricism on “Adam and Eve,” without the usual pitfalls of completely underwhelming production selections. In a vacuum, NASIR is... fine.

We don’t live in a vacuum, though. My disappointment in NASIR lies not in what it attempts to be, but what it refuses to acknowledge. There are plenty of arguments that could be made for Nas not addressing Kelis' allegations—it's an unwinnable battle in the press, he's is no different than other greats who have been charged with claims of abuse—but none of them are very good. For the first time in his career, Nas’ credibility as both a human being and artist was on the line, and it’s hard to say he came up empty when he didn’t even try. 

The lethality of a track like “Cops Shot the Kid,” the attempted hypnotism of “White Label” and “Adam and Eve,” and even the peacefulness and resolve at the heart of “Simple Things” feel completely distracting; a “this is fine dog” meme of an album wanting so desperately for you to revel in nostalgia and showmanship that you stop asking questions about why it exists in the first place. At the very core of NASIR, just like the footage of that insulated circle of onlookers crowding around him during the listening party, is an artist insulating himself from the reality of his situation with music so scared of looking either inwards or outwards, you can’t help but lose sight of him in the process.

Whether intentional or not, NASIR represents a diversionary tactic that only muddies the crucial conversation it refused to take part in. A well-publicized rollout, a surprising album structure, and a celebratory listening party have served as distractions. Here is an emcee, known for opening up on wax about his failed marriage and child support woes, one thoughtful enough to write an entire song from the perspective of a bullet or detail a murder in reverse, who suddenly went thoughtless. It’s almost frightening to think what the conversation would be like if the album were actually great.

Nas didn’t let me down by delivering a mediocre album, but by shilling a body of work that wasn't willing to articulate the mistakes of its creator—or better yet, shilling nothing at all.

Nas once said, “Sooner or later, we’ll all know who the prophet is,” and I think I have my answer now. It isn’t him. 

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