Nas is almost certainly one of the greatest rappers ever, with arguably the best album in rap history under his belt in his debut, Illmatic. The man has released album after album since of material, constantly seeming to have a new project around the corner. In fact, if one includes Distant Relatives, his collaboration with Damian Marley, Nas had almost never gone more than two years between releases, the sole exception being between It Was Written and I Am…, which was originally intended to be a double album until songs leaked forcing him to release a separate album, Nastradamus, in the same year. In other words, his longest period between albums was made up of him recording more material than ever, not less. Despite this rapid pace, Nas has kept up a relatively high standard on all his releases, with only the aforementioned Nastradamus and his untitled ninth album being serious dips in quality, and the story of Nastradamus needed to be rushed to completion from the I Am… leaks certainly more than explains its lower quality.
However, it has been six years for Nas since anything was released, and now we have his long-awaited eleventh album, Nasir, produced in large part with the help of Kanye West. As part of the “Surgical Summer” releases, Nasir clocks in at only seven-tracks, but the quality would be crafted to perfection as a result. Unfortunately, the album fails, not just to live up to expectations, but to be a truly compelling album on the level it tries to be for longer than one listen. On my first run of Nasir, I was compelled, and felt the album was very good. It was not his best, not even close, but I enjoyed the experience from start to finish and felt it was, at least, on par with much of Nas’s output in the past. After a second listen, several tracks appeared to be weaker, but I thought the album was still relatively decent. On a third listen, the album was half and half, where three songs were exciting and enjoyable, but the rest were simply dull. After waiting a couple days to refresh my perspective, I find the album is still just as dull and ultimately weak as the last time I listened to it, paling in comparison to what Nas has produced in the past. I hate to say it, since I think there was a lot of work from a lot of people involved (some of which is pretty decently done), but this is among the worst albums Nas has produced in his career.
The main problem is that nothing seems to come together on a major of the tracks to make it compelling, leading to songs that can easily be skipped without regret. Primarily, the issue seems to be a disconnect between the production of Kanye and the lyrical delivery of Nas. This is most obvious on the track “everything,” where Kanye builds this epic scope around his chorus with Nas contributing verses that are not his best, but are okay. However, the song bloats into a seven-minute long expression of sentiment where Nas is trying to make a more solid point about the state of our culture. In the end, we are being so bluntly delivered points of hopefulness drifting off in nothing, they are repeated so often, only broken by Nas verses delivered too hard and fast about topics too dower for the song they are on. “White Label” also feels off-key here, where Nas’s flow almost seems blunted by the production behind it. The album’s closer, “Simple Things,” suffers from the same problem, as production from Kanye that sounds like “Violent Crimes” part 2 is put to Nas bars which talk of pushing to be the greatest of all time, a sentiment which rings even more hollow when the album it is on does so little to help this goal. Finally, “Bonjour,” which falls in the middle of the album, throws off the thematic track of Nasir by being the only song which is not political or socially-conscious in some way, making it feel like a thrown-in song. None of it fits right, and while this does not make the album bluntly unpleasant, it certainly does make it feel inconsequential and dulled in purpose when so much of the album is trying to speak to social issues.
Luckily, the album does have its bright spots, all of which come when Kanye and Nas both meet at a high intensity level. The first two songs, “Not For Radio” and “Cops Shot the Kid” are among these. “Not for Radio” features forceful, grand statements from Nas, with bars like “Black Kemet gods (yeah), black Egyptian gods (let’s go)/Summoned from heaven, blessed, dressed in only Goyard” introducing this album on a point of real power and scope. Similarly, “Cops Shot the Kid” starts with a short story about cops discriminating against black kids, leading into a scream at the end and the refrain “the cops shot the kid” which places in the background for the rest of the track. The manipulation of that refrain is worth the song, alone, but Nas drops more heavy bars like “Slap-boxin’ in the street/Crack the hydrant in the heat/Cop cars on the creep” doing what he has always done best by creating an image of life on the street and making a point through that image, rather than just stating it blatantly and without much grounding it in real pathos, which is what goes wrong on the song “everything.” “Adam and Eve” has also turned out to be a quick favorite on the album, and for good reason. The use of a sample as the chorus (“Adam and Eve/don’t fall too far/from the apple tree”) is impeccable, and Nas hardly feels more properly alligned with the melody than here. This makes it the easiest song on the album to like by far, and certainly surpasses all of Nasir’s latter half by comparison.
Honestly, though, it did not have to be this way, where half of the songs are bores or unnecessary past the first listen. And while I may have liked three of the songs, they are by no means the best in Nas’s discography. In the end, Nasir is not a terrible album, but feels like it should be so much better. Nas is not lacking for energy here, and neither is Kanye. However, their pairing as producer and rapper here is a mixed big that ultimately makes the album dull and unremarkable past the first listen. As a result, it is not an album I would say should be avoided, and die-hard fans might still find enough value here to make Nasir worth having. However, this album will likely go down as a late-career disappointment in the otherwise amazing legacy of Nas.