Nas album done.
Those three, fateful words — spoken on a 2016 DJ Khaled single of the same name — set the Queens, New York rap icon on a collision course with fan expectation. That expectation soured and eventually curdled into apathy as days, then weeks, then months went by with no sign of the promised musical collection. It had already been four years since his prior effort, Life Is Good, became a critical success, a “grown-up” rap album that proved hip-hop could age gracefully.
Naturally, Nas’ fans were excited at the possibility that the follow-up could bring even more hard-won insights from the other side of 40. After all, rappers’ careers don’t often complete the journey with their physical bodies into middle age; the Rakims, the KRS-Ones, the Big Daddy Kanes… they’re all still out there, somewhere, doing cruise boats and nostalgia showcases, but for all intents and purposes, their days of rap stardom are behind them. For years, Nas’ career threatened to join them in hip-hop’s dusty attic, as release after release was met with enthusiastic anticipation, then received a great, collective “meh” from the listening audience as the elaborately wrapped, heavily-anticipated Christmas present turned out to be just another itchy, grandpa sweater.
Granted, there were gems on those albums. Life Is Good, Hip-Hop Is Dead, God’s Son, and even Street’s Disciple had at least a few heat rocks each, even as they were released to diminishing returns sales-wise. Ironically, as Nas began to turn in more and more impressive first-week numbers, the overall sales tallies of each successive project fell. While that could be chalked up to the unfortunate evolution of the music business in past years, it can’t be discounted: Lonzo Ball may have been right — nobody listens to Nas anymore.
That could change with his latest release. Instead of delivering the promised project from two years ago, Nas went back to the drawing board and did so with a new collaborative partner: Kanye West. The diminished buzz is once again growing. Fans are excited for a Nas project again. The prospect of seven songs produced by one the game’s foremost musical talents is just too good to ignore. However, this gift may also come with a curse.
By now, you’ve probably seen, read about, or participated in a water cooler chat circle about Kanye West’s Fox News-approved, promotional transformation. After returning to Twitter to wax philosophical about fashion and success, it seems that Kanye was keen on capturing as much of the public’s attention and dissent as humanly possible. He began tweeting his approval for controversial, conservative talking heads like Candace Owens. He called Donald Trump his “dragon energy” brother (much like “tiger blood,” we still don’t quite know what this means). Finally, he provided the coup de grâce: He donned a Trump-signed Make America Great Again ball cap in a photo, then went on TMZ to rant about Black slavery sounding like “a choice” made by Black people.
His fall from grace unfortunately coincides with one of the most ambitious and prolific runs of musical releases from his GOOD Music label in its 14-year history. When he announced that he’d be producing comeback albums for himself, for himself and Kid Cudi as a group, for Nas, for Pusha T, and for his longtime artist Teyana Taylor, the fervor for all this new music reached a fever pitch. Then, he started tweeting and ranting, taking his Pablo-era self aggrandizement to a nearly unbearable level by layering his genius comparison with a gleaming veneer of respectability politics and trolling.
While Pusha’s Daytona was more or less well-received, it was also washed away in the furor over Pusha’s back-and-forth with rap rival Drake. Then, Kanye’s Ye turned out to be a disappointing, slapdash mess of an album. While the creatively safe Kids See Ghosts was better received than Yeezy’s solo album, it came and went, sticking only with hardcore Cudi fans. All three projects, whether due to the compressed release schedule or the underwhelming quality of the music or from a legitimate backlash against Kanye West have — despite impressive first-week numbers — been received with a great, collective Kanye shrug.
Nas’ new album has the potential to break the pattern for both artists. After all, he’s been more creatively adventurous than “48 bars of coke rap on every song” in the past. His shortest album to date, his debut Illmatic, is still widely considered to be his best. The seven-track playlist format could force him to sharpen up his pen game and get down to brass tacks lyrically, rather than indulging his tendency to meander. The beats, judging from the best parts of Kanye’s last several releases, are likely to be top-notch, giving Nas a custom-made sonic playground to exercise his craft on. A return to his Nasty Nas form for the man who’s gone by Nastradamus, Escobar, and God’s Son could both redeem his reputation in the eyes of longtime fans and introduce him to a whole new generation who only ever had their parents’ and older siblings’ nostalgia to judge by. It could also give listeners another reason to extend Kanye some benefit of the doubt, if not outright forgiveness, for his harmful comments.
However, Nas has some baggage of his own. The way he chooses to address his ex-wife Kelis’ recent accusations of physical abuse could make or break the reception of his album. If he dodges the subject, it may read as inauthentic or incomplete or disappointing or worse, a tacit acknowledgment of guilt. If he goes the other way, doing what Kanye did on Ye and simply commenting and moving on, he could outrage and infuriate fans who want an apology, an explanation, atonement. Nas is skating on thin ice by aligning with a mercurial personality like Kanye, whose recent behavior has caused a backlash that could derail his own comeback plans just as easily as they wrecked ‘Ye’s. His next album, the one we were promised two years ago and waited for even longer than that, will make all the difference between where he ends up — back in our hearts and headphones or up in that dusty, old attic.
Nas’ as-yet-untitled album is scheduled to release this Friday, June 15.