Nas, a rap great by any measure, has released four studio albums in the last 12 years — all ambitious, all restless, all with their own cohesive artistic thread. And despite none of them being as groundbreaking as his storied 1994 debut Illmatic or as narrative-grabbing as his 2001 return to form, every one of them is good-to-great. Even though last year’s Kanye West-produced 11th album, Nasir, got a somewhat lukewarm response, it still featured the phenomenal “Cops Shot the Kid,” which ultimately cracked the Billboard Hot 100. The Lost Tapes II, is a grab bag of loose tracks from this era, four very different album sessions, and naturally it’s a messy display of the many sides of Nas — storyteller, street life narrator, conscious MC, rap showboat, true-school historian, emo diarist — at both his most essential and least essential.
The best music on The Lost Tapes II evokes the crumbling cassette on the cover — not exactly a return to the days of Nasty Nas’ 1992’s “Halftime” 12-inch, but the type of headknocking, lyrically dense, no-frills boom-bap that labels like Duck Down, Fat Beats and Nas’ own Mass Appeal Records have been steadily releasing for years. For one of the most stunning throwback rhyme sessions you’ll hear this year, make a playlist that’s just “Lost Freestyle,” “Tanasia,” “The Art of It,” “Highly Favored,” “It Never Ends” and “Queensbridge Politics.” It’s one side of a C40 cassette, produced entirely by Pete Rock, RZA, the Alchemist and Statik Selectah. Here’s where Nas does classic microphone acrobatics — check out “Lost Freesyle” for assonance-heavy gems like “Be from the Eighties era/His tint is shade Carrera, Queens forever/Green pipe seats, clean Panamera/Amateur Hanna-Barbera characters know they envy/The illest Hennessy Black sipper with loaded semis.”
The most notable moment on The Lost Tapes II will likely remain outlier “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack),” which features Nas rapping over a sample of Dave Brubeck’s ill-metered classic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (as performed by Al Jarreau). On one hand, the track is somewhat Hamilton-era gimmick rap, inescapable from rockist ideas of virtuosity. It even brings to mind Billy Woods’ recent complaint on Hiding Places, “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.” However, Nas has long nimbly rhymed over things like “Carol of the Bells” (1999’s “Shoot Em Up”) or “Für Elise” (2002’s “I Can”), and this tumble of lyrics is equally deft. Anyone whose idea of 1994 also includes Digable Planets, Boogiemonsters and Saafir alongside Illmatic should appreciate it.
The rest of The Lost Tapes II is basically Nas over some not-especially-impressive beats from A-list producers (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beats), a couple of Biggie interpolations and the occasional quotable bar: “The [Queens]bridge rappers influenced me, son/But if I was in the Juice Crew we would have won.” Other songs on The Lost Tapes indulge in some of Nas’ worst impulses. The extended werewolf metaphor of “Queens Wolf” continues in the tradition of Nas rapping as a fetus (“Fetus”) or in the voice of Edward G. Robinson (“Who Killed It”). There are still those moments where Nas can be a little cringey about women (“They’re looking for a dollar, I’m looking for a JoAnne Chesimard to turn to Assata”) or sex: “Ejaculatory depression after sex/And that mean after I nut, don’t touch me, no questions”). In a career that’s soldiered on for 25 years, longtime Nas fans have certainly lived through both better and worse.
All in all, The Lost Tapes II is a rap legend at his most stylistically diverse. Like he raps on “It Never Ends”: “Did songs with Chubb Rock to Chris Brown, switch styles/Yet to see any heavyweight make it to this round.”