In 2000, Rakim, then widely regarded as the greatest rapper ever, signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. This was a ridiculously exciting thing to even contemplate: an all-time great rapper and an all-time great rap producer coming together, aligning forces, ready to take on the world. In the end, Rakim was only on Aftermath for three years. The sum total of his output during that time: one song on the 8 Mile soundtrack, one collaboration with Dre and Jay-Z on the latter’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse, and one guest verse on Truth Hurts’ great R&B single “Addictive.” After that, he was done. Rakim left Aftermath in 2003, later saying that he and Dre just couldn’t get on the same page artistically. It didn’t work.
When Jay-Z and Nas were actively feuding with each other in 2001, I remember thinking that Nas was at a distinct disadvantage. Jay had dominion over Just Blaze and Kanye West, the two producers who had revolutionized the East Coast rap sound, and Nas just didn’t have access to beats like that. Nas would eventually rap on a Kanye Beat. On the tracklist of 2005’s Late Registration, “We Major,” with its Nas guest verse, was sequenced right after the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” remix, with its Jay-Z guest verse. Jay and Nas hadn’t yet publicly squashed their feud, so this was legitimately shocking. (Nas sounded good.) Later that year, I watched, in a New Jersey arena, as Jay-Z brought Nas to the stage, ending more than four years of bad blood. Late in that show, Jay, Nas, Kanye, and Diddy all stood side-by-side on the stage, acting out the role of a new rap Mount Rushmore. (50 Cent later said that this whole show was about him, and he was right, even though nobody onstage said his name.)
The knock against Nas is that he doesn’t know how to pick beats, that this has somehow torpedoed his career. This is false. In the years since Illmatic and It Was Written, Nas has put together some truly amazing songs, songs with music that fit his voice perfectly. He made “Nas Is Like,” “Hate Me Now,” “Get Down,” “Made You Look,” “Thief’s Theme,” “Queens Get The Money” — all staggering songs, all songs that depend completely on their tracks. The widely derided “Oochie Wally” has a fucking amazing beat; the beat isn’t the problem there. And Nas, for all his plaudits as a lyricist, doesn’t get enough love as an musician — as someone who knows how to lock his thousand-yard-stare rasp onto a track, to ride a beat.
It’s not Nas’ beat selection that’s held him back. It’s his songwriting, his goofy-ass instincts, his inability to see things through, his tendency to just not do shit for long periods of time. It’s not the beat that caused Nas to rap an entire song in an Edward G. Robinson nyaaah, see? ’30s gangster-movie voice, or to rap an entire song as a goofy-ass backwards narrative (“bobbed her head and then spit the nut back in my dick”). In 2006, Nas and DJ Premier appeared together on the cover of the late rap-production magazine Scratch, talking about the album they were making together. That’s an album that everyone who ever loved rap music wanted to hear. It never came out.
So in a lot of ways, the idea of an entire Nas album produced by Kanye West should’ve fixed every possible problem Nas ever had. The beat-selection thing wouldn’t be an issue. Neither would the fixation on clumsy and indefensible high-concept songs. The album would actually come out, given that Kanye was dead set on cranking through his schedule of five Wyoming-produced albums in five weeks. And it’s the kind of thing that never could’ve happened during the earlier stages of these guys’ careers. It’s a dream-match pairing — the producer of “Takeover” joining forces with the rapper targeted on “Takeover.” (It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see the flipside of that. Jay-Z is not making a whole album with Ron Brownz anytime soon.)
But this is another one of those great-on-paper situations, like Rakim on Aftermath. Like the rest of the Kanye-produced Wyoming albums, Nasir is full of ideas. West has fallen in love with the warped textures of old psych-rock albums, and they rumble all through the album, with their thick bass-tones and their bursts of fuzz. On “Cops Shot The Kid,” West and his collaborators turn a quick soundbite from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” into a nerve-jangled jackhammer mantra. Horns buzz though “White Label” with hallucinatory force. The part on “Everything” where Kanye and The-Dream sing over each other is probably the single prettiest thing that has yet emerged from the Wyoming sessions.
But like the rest of the Wyoming albums, Nasir has a confused, slapdash muddiness that is not Nas’ friend. On Daytona, Pusha-T had the icy precision to cut right through West’s gluey beats. On Kids See Ghosts, West and Cudi got lost in the miasma together. On Nasir, Nas isn’t able to do either of those, so he just plods along over these tracks. He never finds the pocket, so he delivers his verses like they’re slam-poetry, just barely interacting with the tracks at all. Sometimes, the beats come close to overwhelming his voice. He sounds old, tired, a husk of his former self. If West hadn’t pressured Nas to crank out a new album in a few weeks, then we might never get the album; it has, after all, been six years since Nas came out with Life Is Good, his last one. But with the pressure, Nas never really finds his groove, if he even has a groove to find anymore.
It would be one thing if Nas actually had anything to say, but he doesn’t. He does come up with the occasional slick turn of phrase: “Laying in the most expensive beds, still I’m losing sleep / Next to Jet’s Beauty of the Week 1993,” “Come through the side entrance / I arrive, bitches / Crackheads still owe me from ’89 fixes.” But when Nas tries to dig into current events, he seems lost and clumsy: “If Starbucks is bought by Nestle, please don’t arrest me.” And he gets lost in the weeds, putting forth the idea that J. Edgar Hoover was black and that “Fox News was started by a black dude, it’s true.” It’s not true. I don’t even know where he got that. And even if it was true, what could that possibly mean? What point would it make? Judging by lines like that, he’s turning into the middle-aged black equivalent of a credulous Fox News viewer, falling down one YouTube wormhole after another and receiving conspiracy theory as fact. The idea of Fake News Nas is almost too sad to contemplate.
And then there’s what he doesn’t say. I can’t be the only one who hears Nasir as, on some level, Kanye West’s answer to Jay-Z’s 4:44. 4:44 was one of the ’90s greats of New York rap making a full album with a Chicago producer (No I.D., who, once upon a time, was West’s mentor). It’s short, compact, unshowy, and personal. West, out of spite or pique or bravado, wanted to show that he could make his own, that he could do it with the guy who had so memorably feuded with Jay. (Jay has already clapped back magnificently and imperiously, releasing Everything Is Love within 24 hours of Nasir and effectively drowning it out.) But what made 4:44 special was the way Jay stripped away his own public image, revealing himself to be a flawed, selfish, self-destructive asshole who had to work hard to save his own marriage. It’s an apology.
Nas allegedly has a lot more to apologize for than Jay ever did. In a recent interview, Kelis spoke about the “mental and physical abuse” that she claims she suffered at Nas’ hand when they were married: “I had bruises all over my body.” Those accusations, combined with Kanye West’s recent embrace of right-wing politics, mean that Nasir comes into the world in a suffocating cloud of rancidness.
Nas could do something to address those allegations, the way he tried to address his divorce on Life Is Good. He doesn’t. He just offers self-mythologization and conspiracy theories and advice like this: “Watch who you getting pregnant, that’s long-term stressing.” He calls himself the “chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth spitter.” He’s talking about rough sex, which would be fine in most circumstances. But on the album where you’re pointedly refusing to acknowledge the accusations that you beat up your ex-wife, a line like that curdles and stinks. “Everybody saying my humility’s infectious,” Nas says at one point, a definitional humblebrag. But he doesn’t have the humility to even discuss the one thing that he really, really should.
1. Jay Rock – “Wow Freestyle” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Someday, when things settle down a little, maybe we can talk about how Jay Rock made the best rap album of the past week.
2. Rico Nasty – “Countin Up”
Someday, when things settle down a little, maybe we can talk about how Rico Nasty made the other best rap album of the past week. (Also, “Superthug” forever.)
3. Kevin Gates – “Therapy Shit”
The emotive, chest-beating, soul-baring Kevin Gates song is the best kind of Kevin Gates song. And right now, he has a lot to talk about.
4. O.T. Genasis – “Cash On It”
O.T. Genasis has a long history of singles that I completely miss when they come out and then fall in love with six months later. Not this time! This time I’m deciding that I like it right away!
5. Nef The Pharaoh & 03 Greedo – “Ball Out” (Feat. Allblack)
03 Greedo sounds great on bouncy, propulsive Bay Area tracks. I hope he left dozens more like this in the vault.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
This may seem kinda random, but Lil B has been VERY influential to me for almost 10 years now. Wonton soup….bitch I own swag…Ellen degeneres…imma eat tha ass…I know almost every lyric to these songs.
— Charlie Puth (@charlieputh) May 31, 2018