Every Nas album since the turn of the century has closely orbited a major theme. At his most overt (he called an album Hip Hop Is Dead in 2006 and tried to call another Nigger two years later), the iconic Queens rapper will trace one idea from a dozen different angles, writing high-concept Fox News disses or rapping like a 1920s bootlegger. Sometimes he’s more subtle: 2002’s God’s Son, released exactly a year after he telegraphed a return to form on Stillmatic, feigns the same sort of legacy burnishing but is really an album about his mother’s death. His last LP, 2012’s Life Is Good, was a bloodletting after his divorce, a grappling with middle age from a man whose later work, which includes a couple of minor masterpieces, can’t escape the shadow of the album he made when he was 20.
After the longest dormant period of his career, Nas returned last week with Nasir, the slightest, lowest-concept record in his discography. It’s executive produced by Kanye West––a generation-defining genius maybe, but just as importantly: the guy who produced “Takeover,” Jay-Z’s epochal 2001 evisceration of Nas. It’s the fourth of five G.O.O.D. Music albums dropped in five weeks, all overseen by Kanye, all seven songs long. It also comes in the midst of scandal for both men. West, as has been well-documented, started promoting this string of albums by flirting with the online alt-right and loudly proclaiming his love for Donald Trump. Less global but maybe graver: in April, Nas’s ex-wife, the artist-turned-chef Kelis, gave an interview in which she alleged brutal physical violence at the rapper’s hands. (Nas had previously been accused of striking Carmen Bryan, the mother of his daughter, in Bryan’s 2006 autobiography.)
Nas hasn’t publicly addressed the allegations from Kelis, and he doesn’t broach the subject on Nasir, either, unless you count an oblique line on the closer, “Simple Things” (“Was loving women you’ll never see me / All you know’s my kids’ mothers, some celebrities / Damn, look at the jealousy”). In fact, even considering the short running time, there’s little in the way of narrative or thematic design. It’s among Nas’s most scattered records, unfocused and unclear. And when it comes to simple execution, Nasir plays to his weaknesses as a writer and finds him staid and tired where Life Is Good probed for new ground, clumsy and subdued where he’s often been breathtaking.
Nasir is among the weakest Nas albums, but there’s nothing spectacular about its failure.
Nas has, in the past, been a near-peerless writer when dealing in autobiography or writing linear, detail-rich narrative. He’s generally been at his least effective when he’s at his most abstract, or when he’s mulling over grandiose theories. Nasir’s opener, “Not For Radio,” dives headlong into a list of theories, some reasonable and some (“Fox News was started by a black dude”) easily disproved. Despite that, the song almost works––it sounds like a villain’s theme from a b-movie, and Puff is flown in simply to talk shit––but Nas’s verses are ultimately too pedestrian, as writing and as performance.
While Nas has never been the most musically gifted rapper, he’s been a precise technician, able to rap exceptionally both with and against the beat. On Nasir, though, he often plods, which leaves his writing exposed. This makes for songs that are, frankly, a drag: “Bonjour” is a long-winded argument that Nas goes on a lot of dates, and “White Label” is basically content to revel in the fact that Nas has become a successful investor. (The latter song features a true late-Nas head scratcher: “What you love can kill you / Like a heart physician dying of a heart attack.”) While the seven-song format has served both Pusha-T and Kid Cudi well, and while Nas has made perhaps the greatest short rap record ever in his classic 1994 debut Illmatic, the brevity doesn’t do him any favors here. The two dominant modes on Nasir are self-satisfaction and a sort of workmanlike stiffness, neither of which suits Nas and both of which make the album’s 26 minutes seem far longer.
The most cogent song is “Cops Shot the Kid,” which includes the lone guest verse, from Kanye. The beat is built on a vocal sample from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”––as in, the single line (“The cops shot the kid”), which gets looped end over end through the verses and doubled down on during the hook. It’s not a radical choice, but it’s spare and piercing and illustrates the hard break from both the Gothic opener “Not For Radio” and from the previous G.O.O.D. release, Kids See Ghosts. (If nothing else, this five-album experiment highlights Kanye’s versatility as an executive producer.) Nas’ verse doesn’t necessarily hold up next to his voluminous catalog of writing on race in general and the police specifically, but it’s a clear, uncompromised thesis.
There are interesting flashes elsewhere on the album: the end of the seven-minute odyssey “Everything,” where Nas buys back the land on which white men once enslaved his ancestors lands superbly, and when he raps, on “Adam and Eve,” about the way the speakers make “chinchillas shake on the hanger,” you’re transported back to the reams of unforgettably colorful verses that dot his career. But here there are only glimpses. In the years between It Was Written and Life Is Good, Nas gained a reputation for picking poor beats and littering his albums with spectacularly failed experiments. Both are rooted in truth; both are exaggerations. Nasir is among the weakest Nas albums, but there’s nothing spectacular about its failure. It is, simply, the one thing Nas has avoided being all these years, through revolutionary highs and car-crash lows: dull.