Of the five projects Kanye West had in store for us, I was most excited for NASIR; because Kanye brings out the best of both Pusha T and Kid Cudi, I expected great things from Daytona and Kids See Ghosts. And because Kanye West hasn’t produced anything for Nas since Hip Hop Is Dead back in 2006 (of which Kanye’s “Still Dreaming” is one of the few tracks worth salvaging), I wanted to see how he would tailor an entire album – albeit a short one – for Nas. Nas, on the other hand, has spent most of his career disappointing people eager for another Illmatic, but I found his last album, 2012’s Life is Good, to be unexpected greatness, and one of the best hip-hop albums from a year with no shortage of them and easily his best album in a decade. He seemed invigorated, and though the Drake-like cover made it seem like the album would air out dirty laundry with his then-recent divorce with Kelis, he barely addressed that. Instead, we got a wide arrange of fast-rapped topics over some excellent beats, courtesy of mostly No I.D. and Salaam Remi. Looking back, maybe Life is Good was the exact moment that No I.D. made his comeback before playing a huge role on Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 or sole responsible for Jay Z’s best albums in years.
There’s no way to get around this: the worst part about Nas’s new album is Nas. He uses “Not for Radio” like it were his Twitter account, tossing out lines that suggest Kanye West might’ve been a bad influence on him; others have pointed out the falsities of “SWAT was created to stop the Panthers” or “Fox News was started by a black dude, also true” but I’m still grappling with the line just before that: “Reagan had Alzheimer’s, that’s true.” That line, and it’s disconnect from the Fox News bit or the preceding lines (I think we’re supposed to connect it back to the government profiting off of drugs) showcases the weak writing, never mind that the flow and rhymes are barely passable. And that’s just the first song, which I guess eases us into “White Label,” where lines like “Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter / Blouse-ripper, ass-gripper…” (whose quick rhymes and flow recall Earl Sweatshirt breaking out) seem in bad taste to recent allegations from Kelis about physical abuse (also not the first time Nas has been accused) or “Bonjour,” where he starts us off with “How many girls pre-bate right before they date / So she can have restraint? She still get slayed.” Potential mind-blowers like “The odds is that what you love can kill you / Like a heart physician who dies from a heart attack” read like fortune cookie insights.
The nadir is centerpiece “everything.” If you’ve heard anything about the new album, it’s probably the lines,
“A parent hates to watch his baby’s face/ Taking his first immunization shots, but this is great/ The child’s introduction to suffering and pain/ Understands without words, nothing is explained/ Or rushed to the brain, looking up at his parents’ face/ Like, ‘I thought you would protect me from this scary place?/ Why’d you let them inject me?/ Who’s gonna know how these side effects is gonna affect me?’”
These harken back to Stillmatic’s “What Goes Around,” where Nas said “Doctors injecting our infants with the poison,” but he immediately pivots from his distaste of vaccinations to the Philadelphia Starbucks incident where two black men were arrested (“If Starbucks is bought by Nestle, please don’t arrest me / I need to use your restroom and I ain’t buy no espresso soon enough”). Again, it’s just more evidence of weak writing whereas just one album prior, “No Introduction” and “A Queens Story” and especially “World’s an Addiction” were climaxing with well thought out verses, filled with autobiographical details, neat references to other songs from the same album or arcane rhymes, respectively.
And yet: Kanye West seems unwilling to disappoint his promise to Obama (Kanye tweeted “I promised Obama Ima do beats on NAS’ next album” back in 2016) or even Nas (“I feel like I'm 18 years old again when I’m making beats for Nas”). The big boom of the drums on “Not for Radio” manage to keep the song rolling and not leaving any time for listeners to seriously dwell on Nas’ shower thoughts; 070 Shake – previously appearing on Daytona (“Santeria”) and Ye (“Ghost Town,” “Violent Crimes”) – finally gets credited as a feature, and she does a spot-on impersonation of The-Dream. This is followed up by one of the most inspired samples I’ve heard from Kanye West all year, taking one line from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” and looping it over and over, adding only the occasional scream and demonic harmony. Here, Nas gets the most poignant lines by staying simple: “Get scared, you panic, you’re going down / The disadvantage of the brown / How in the hell the parents gon’ bury their own kids / Not the other way around? / Reminds me of Emmett Till / Let’s remind ‘em why Kap kneels.”
The other highlight comes on the other side of the album, with a simple piano loop driving “Adam and Eve” filled out with lo-fi acoustic guitar that Kanye West might’ve picked up from Paul McCartney back when they worked on “FourFiveSeconds.” Songs like this – and “Stay” from Life is Good – suggest that Nas might’ve done better had he picked slower, more melancholic beats and rapped like the elder statesman he is, rather than whatever we actually got on the record. Elsewhere, I find myself looking forward to hearing the hand-offs between Kanye West and The-Dream on “everything”, recalling previous autotuned hand-offs between West and higher-pitched and feyer singers (ie. “Highlights,” “Wolves,” “New Slaves”) even if I know I have to contend with Nas’ clunky verses.
There has been little written of Nas that’s as truthful and succinct as what Jay-Z said on “Takeover,” Jay’s diss track against Nas back in 2001 (produced by Kanye West, no less): “Two of them shits was due / One as ‘nah,’ the other was Illmatic / That’s a one hot album every 10 year average, and that’s so LAME.” Since then, we’ve had The Lost Tapes (2002) and Life is Good (2012), so I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that NASIR wasn’t great – it came about four years too early. C PLUS