“I feel like I’m 18 year old again when I make beats for Nas,” Kanye West tweeted back in April, melting the internet in the process. Fans have been waiting six years for a new Nas album after 2012’s Life Is Good; his ‘Nas Album Done’ song with DJ Khaled in 2016 raised hopes one would soon appear, yet nothing materialised; ‘done’ here seemingly meant ‘shelved’.
Fast forward two years and now Nas finds himself in the middle of Kanye’s breathless media hype-storm as West releases 5 albums over 5 weeks via his G.O.O.D label. Kanye dropped his own album ye to mixed reviews; his joint Kids See Ghosts project with Kid Cudi fared better, as did his production on Pusha T’s ‘Daytona’. Teyana Taylor’s album drops next week and yesterday (June 15), Nas’ eleventh studio album, Nasir, premiered in his hometown of Queens in a listening party next to Queensboro Bridge.
There was an apt circularity to this homecoming, it being 24 years since the release of his game-changing debut Illmatic. Rapping about the streets of Queen’s back in 1994, his lyrical dexterity and brutal honesty wowed: hip-hop suddenly had its next big star. There’s a certain maturity and reflectiveness about the sort-of-self-titled Nasir: “grey hairs of wisdom mean you see something,” he raps early on. There’s also some honesty too.
“Never sold a record for a beat / it’s my verses they purchase / Without production, I’m worthless,” he raps on ‘Simple Things’, seemingly addressing his hit-and-miss musical approach and erratic beat choices over the years. Choosing Kanye to produce his album was certainly a calculated risk, especially as the two seem diametrically opposed politically. Kanye’s pro-Trump tweets baffled, as did his ill-considered comments on slavery.
Moments into Nasir, it’s evident Nas’ thinking couldn’t be further from Kanye’s, and yet the two unite politically over an album which, from the very outset, slams America’s race inequalities at every available opportunity. Police brutality, the African diaspora and slavery are all addressed, as are the forgotten ghettos where Nas details the ruthless discrimination of a government who has failed its people.
Lyrically, it’s a classy affair as Nas mixes street with Shakespeare, referring to himself as “The ghetto Othello, the moor” on the sample-heavy ‘Adam and Eve.’ The samples and beat choices are slick and politically charged throughout, especially on this and the crushing ‘Cops Shot the Kids.’
The latter opens with a snippet of speech from Richard Pryor at a Stax Records benefit concert where he’s talking about police curfews against black teens in the 1970’s. Moments later, a breathless, frantic sampling of Slick Rick’s famous ‘Children’s Story’ appears and underscores the song throughout: “the cops shot the kids” is repeated with devastating urgency and emotiveness.
“The cops shot the kid, same old same”, Nas raps, exemplifying the fact that little has changed over the forty years period since Pryor’s comments. It’s a track full of evocative images – a burst fire hydrant in the summer, for example – representing the chaos Nas sees around him on the streets, often echoing Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America.’ Its abrupt ending and chilling final line – “the cops shot the kids, I still hear him scream” haunts long after the song’s ending.
The orchestral backed ‘Not For Radio’ takes aim at the credit Abraham Lincoln gets for “freeing” slaves – “Abe Lincoln did not free the enslaved” – he spits with increasing anger; he says the “SWAT was created to stop the Panthers” and that he’s “buyin’ back the land owned by the slave masters.” Featuring Puff Daddy who also adds increasing anger from the echoing depths of the song’s backdrop and 070 Shake whose refrains bring brief moments of reflective calm, it also features more troubling claims – “Fox news was started by a black dude” – he raps, before anticipating the response: “fuck you too.” Against Kanye’s production and personal views on Trump and slavery, this does, at times, ring hollow.
Like the other G.O.O.D releases, this is just seven tracks long and comes in at just over 26 minutes – the length of a typical EP. Despite its brevity, there is a lot to unravel amidst its densely packed political messages. The succinctness of the songs actually suits Nas – previously, the punch of his political messages has often been lost in songs lasting too long. Here, the directness intensifies them. Kanye has again sampled heavily, yet his positioning is often exquisite and his obscure choices suit Nas’ lyrics perfectly, always adding greater depth and meaning.
This is a very current album, with Nas referencing an incident of alleged police brutality at a Philadelphia Starbucks just a few months ago on ‘Everything’. “If Starbucks is bought by Nestlè, please don’t arrest me / I need to use your restroom, and I ain’t buying no espresso / Soon enough, assume the cuffs / The position not new to us.” With West well-known for working on albums until the very last minute (there also seems to have been changes between the streamed listening party version and the one streamed on today’s release), it feels like this is both immediate and reactionary.
Where the album is perhaps loudest, however, is where it is most silent. It may well be a current album, but it’s an album that doesn’t, in any meaningful way, address the allegations made by Nas’ ex-wife Kelis just a few months ago. Whereas Nas may feel he addressed their break-up on his confessionary last album (he is pictured holding Kelis’ famous green wedding dress in his hand on the cover), he has remained entirely silent about her narrative – a narrative where she alleges she suffered significant “mental and physical abuse” in their relationship for years. Another former partner has also previously made similar allegations. Whereas think pieces on every controversial Kanye comment litter the internet at every turn, barely any appear about Nas in light of the allegations.
Nas does look to his past, if only fleetingly. “Pray my sins don’t get passed to my children”, he raps on Adam and Eve, a song overtly referencing Original Sin. On ‘Bonjour’, there’s a troubling, ambiguous line: “watch who you getting’ pregnant / That’s long term stressin’ / I got a mil for every bump on your face / That’s what I call a blessing.” He also seemingly boasts about a lack of responsibility when he references “sexual addiction, gangsters tradition”, “as long as I enjoy the fruit.” There’s throwaway references to the mothers of his children, of women he’s slept with and how many of them he sees as mere social climbers. The gaze here conflicts with the albums overriding narrative of equality, and it’s not one that’s ever resolved.
It’s a deeply troubling conflict on an album that manages to be so successfully woke on one level and yet so blatantly archaic on another. The difficulty with this album comes in its paradoxes. How do you feel when you listen to Nas rap, “I’m buyin’ the land back owned by the slave masters”, in light of its producer’s comments about slavery being a choice? Can you listen to Nas rap about much-needed equality and silenced voices when he himself has allegedly silenced voices? Whilst stylistically Nasir may well have plenty of strong moments, its contradictions make it a difficult, problematic listen: it’s the silences on here which so often deafen.