Nas’ output this decade has been pretty sporadic, with the rap legend only putting out two new studio albums: 2012’s ‘Life is Good’ and 2018’s ‘Nasir’. Although personal issues, particularly a messy divorce with Kelis, have played a part in stifling the Queensbridge rapper’s creativity, you sense that Nas is also comfortable slowing things down, having realised there’s no longer any pressure on him to release new music. With classics such as ‘Illmatic’ and ‘It Was Written’ under his belt, his status as a hip-hop legend is pretty unshakable.
Although it had its moments – particularly the poignant, heartfelt Kanye West duet ‘Everything’ – ‘Nasir’, which was produced entirely by West, felt under-baked and left many Nas fans wanting something more substantial. ‘The Lost Tapes 2’, a collection of originally rejected songs – spanning from 2006’s ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ right up until the ‘Nasir’ sessions in 2018 – is certainly substantive (it has a weighty 16 tracks), but the music here just isn’t great enough to quench the thirst that ‘Nasir’ left us with.
Unfortunately the majority of the songs see Nas rap over dated, tinny production that sounds regressive compared to the more visceral punk trap sound that’s driving rap culture forward right now. While Nas’ flow is usually cutting and direct, the fact a lot of this music meanders means his rapping sounds less focused than usual.
Tracks such as ‘Vernon Family’ and ‘Queens Wolf’ are let down by beats that go nowhere, yet the likes of ‘Royalty’ and ‘Adult Film’, which feature Swizz Beats attempting a falsetto and sounding horrible, fail because Nas just isn’t very good at writing love songs, with his lyrics – particularly the cringe bars “Nothing like making love with somebody you love / Nothing like coming home to grub” – devoid of any edge and bordering into misogynist territory. He just doesn’t have the same wit when it comes to rapping about relationships as he does when rapping about the street, a trick that, say, Tupac and Jay-Z have managed to balance.
‘The Lost Tapes 2’ is at its best when Nas isn’t trying to play Lothario, but instead playing the part of the street veteran whose eyes have seen way too much. Pete Rock’s nostalgic production on highlight ‘Queensbridge Politics’ inspires a vintage performance from Nas; memorable, emotive bars see him reminisce on his complicated friendship with the late Prodigy (of Mobb Deep). It’s hard not to get choked up as Nas sounds genuinely upset discussing Prodigy’s mural being vandalised due to unavoidable street politics.
‘It Never Ends’ and ‘Highly Flavoured’, produced by The Alchemist and RZA, will also have you reaching for the replay button, with their minimalist beats not overshadowing Nas’ softly spoken rapping style. The keys on the former are particularly beautiful and Nas’ boast that we’ve “yet to see any heavyweight make it to this round” shows he’s much more confident rapping over more stripped back production.
There are four or five reminders here of why Nas is one of the greats — it’s hard, for example, to think of another rapper who could rap so eloquently over the complex jazz of ‘Jarreau of Rap (Skat Attack)’, even if the song’s repetition is slightly irritating. Yet the existence of ‘The Lost Tapes 2’ also feels a tad pointless and like something that won’t really captivate many beyond his hardcore fan base.
For the most part, this album, with its Avatar references (‘Lost Freestyle’) and hilariously bad Kim Jong Un punchlines (from ‘Tanasia’: “Chillin, we’re starting to think about children / And bringing them in the world with Kim Jong Illin'”), just sounds dated and like something Nas didn’t need to release. The original ‘Lost Tapes’ sounded more cohesive, but maybe that’s because its sequel covers a longer time period in which Nas changed so much musically; the tracks here just don’t sit as well together.