review: Nas is out of his element on the Kanye-produced ‘NASIR’
"Never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses they purchase / Without production, I’m worthless / But I’m more than the surface," Nas raps on "Simple Things," the last of the seven tracks on his new Kanye-produced album NASIR, and it's easy to read into this as a response to the critics of Nas' beat-picking over the years. It's fair criticism, really -- Illmatic had the dream team of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip, and Nas was never able to come up with a better batch of producers than he had for that album. As good a rapper as he is -- and he's one of the best to ever do it -- Nas isn't really the musical visionary type, so without the right producer to help push him forward, he's never really made too drastic a progression over the years. That's why it sounded so exciting when we learned that Nas was putting out an album produced entirely by Kanye West, and it seemed even more exciting once we heard the kinds of beats Kanye made for the great new Pusha T album. Kanye gave Push a selection of hard-hitting, head-nodding tracks that hearkened back to the kind of production he was giving Jay-Z in the early 2000s. The throwback-yet-refreshing production helped energize Push, and in return he spit some of his finest bars in years. Nas is a virtuoso, so, equipped with some classic Kanye beats, it seemed virtually impossible that he too wouldn't come out with his most energized album in years. So the question now is... what happened?
Inexplicably, Kanye didn't gift Nas with the kind of production he gifted Pusha T. Instead, Nas tries to work mostly with the types of beats that Kanye uses for his own recent material, and it leaves him way out of his comfort zone. Kanye (with help from Mike Dean, Benny Blanco, and Cashmere Cat) opens the album with a gorgeous choral/orchestral sample, and it's actually one of the richest sounding pieces of music that Kanye has released this year -- it would've done more wonders for ye than most of ye's actual production did -- but Nas fumbles with it. "Reagan had Alzheimer's, that's true / Fox News was started by a black dude, also true." It sounds elementary compared to what Nas is capable of.
Nas doesn't really flex his muscles until the third song, "White Label." With a beat that's got more of a hop in its step, Nas turns quicker phrases full of wordplay, alliteration, and breathtaking inner-line rhymes. He dishes out lines about his rags to riches story, trendsetting, and how good he is at rapping, and on this song, you know not to argue with him. He shows off a similar level of talent from the vocal booth on "Adam and Eve," the song that's got a beat most similar to what Kanye was doing on the Pusha T album. Nas sounds more at home on "Adam and Eve" than he does on most of NASIR, but lyrically, it might be the album's most disappointing song.
NASIR is the first album that Nas released since his ex-wife Kelis accused him of physically abusing her during their marriage, and I don't know if there's any real way that Nas could make up for his alleged treatment of women on this album, but it's probably not by rapping this: "Spent twenty on a bad bitch I hardly know / New girl every night, two girls was every other night / Sexual addition, gangster tradition / They wanna fuck me, have me under they belt, slightly offended." Nas' silence on those allegations is more deafening than usual in an era where male celebrities are being taken to task for their treatment of women, and where some of Nas' peers are handling things like this with at least a bit of grace. Last year, Nas' longtime frenemy Jay-Z responded to the rumors of his infidelity that were started by Beyonce's Lemonade on his own 4:44, and that album was hailed as one of Jay's best in a while. Jay-Z was accused of something a little less violent than Nas, so it isn't entirely comparable, but still, many noted that the grown up, introspective version of Jay we saw on 4:44 was similar to the version of Nas we saw on 2012's Life Is Good, which makes it even more confusing that Nas is pulling a Benjamin Button here. (Meanwhile, it feels like a jab at Nas -- and Kanye for that matter -- that Jay and Beyonce dropped their far superior Everything Is Love just one day after NASIR.)
NASIR was a missed opportunity for Nas to tackle some societal issues too. He talks a little about race, and "Cops Shot the Kid" is about exactly what you think it's about, but the "wokeness" of this album feels surface level. I don't think it's fair to expect Nas or anyone to make a political album just because of the living hell that is Trump-era America, but Nas came off like the wise elder of rap even when he was 20 years old. He's offered up keen observations about his own community, the hip hop community, and the world at large countless times since the beginning of his career. It's confusing that now, in a time where Nas doing what Nas does best could've been exactly the album that everyone needed, he decided to make an album that ignores almost all of the things that people like about Nas. I don't know who he's rapping for here. It's not his fans, not the radio. It doesn't even sound like he's rapping for himself.