On Monday, Nas announced that new music was being released on August 21. In true Nas fashion, there was, and is, mystery as to exactly what’s coming. His “HitBoyOnTheBeats” Instagram caption led most people to conclude that he was set to release a project of some sort with Hit-Boy.
The legendary rhymer had announced earlier this year that he was working on two projects, including one with Hit-Boy. He stirred anticipation with his announcement, but there are also plenty of Nas fans who remember the DJ Premier, Common, and Mobb Deep collab project promises and know not to hold their breath. What’s known is that something is coming in two weeks, and Hit-Boy will be the executive producer. What’s unclear is what the “project,” as the press releases deem it, is an EP or album, or what its name is.
There are two safe bets based on the names involved: Nas will be rhyming well, and he’ll be rhyming over modern, cutting-edge production for the first time in years. He’s lost some of his luster because of Kelis’ abuse allegations, but he’s still in the highest of esteem in many hip-hop circles (which is another story in itself). His diehard fans will be clamoring for whatever he releases, but this particular project is different: it’s a chance to reassert his greatness to a younger hip-hop generation.
To be clear, Nas never needs to release another second of music to be solidified. Please read that twice, if you’re unsure of where this piece is coming from. Nas’ lyrical excellence is as objective as it gets in rap; his most ardent musical criticisms stem from beat selection (not his lyrics), and residual bias from the Jay-Z rivalry. His catalog is undeniable.
But despite his top-tier lyricism, which was still evident on his Lost Tapes 2 project, Nas is increasingly perceived as a classic act among the younger crowd. His greatness is grandfathered into their consciousness through the mere iconography of Illmatic, which he recently said he wanted to stop “celebrating” — perhaps for that reason. There are plenty of young hip-hop heads who adore his music, but there’s also a sizable faction of fans, young and older, who have found his production choices inaccessible over the years. Fellow 40+ lyricists like Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Pusha T rap over enticing, up-to-date production. The brand of underwhelming production makes it too easy for some fans to simply respect Nas from a distance or only listen to him during certain moods.
Nas doesn’t want that. His stans are as rigid as it gets and will be the first to condemn someone as a scourge to hip-hop for rapping over an 808 drum, but that conservatism isn’t representative of who Nas is. Yes, he made Hip-Hop Is Dead, but the mid-2000s ringtone era was a trying time for diversity, and he’s since distanced himself from that perspective. Nas is a true hip-hop head, but he’s had his moments of seeking mass appeal.
In 1996, Nas linked up with music executive Steve Stoute after Illmatic because he wanted to expand his sound and become more of a mainstream star. He sought radio play with polarizing tracks like “You Owe Me” and “Oochie Wallie.” And today, there are remnants of that same mentality.
He comes from an era of New York rap where one had to have a foothold with the youth to be perceived as “relevant.” He’s sought to maintain that mainstream appeal throughout the 2010s, even as he’s backed away from rap to pursue venture capitalism. He did a freestyle over Future’s “March Madness” in 2016, and a “Rodeo” remix with 20-year-old Lil Nas X earlier this year. When Nore asked him who he was listening to on Drink Champs, he said DaBaby and LIl Baby. In June, he was seen at a Fivio Foreign studio session full of 20-somethings. In short: Nas may be older, but he’s still outside, he’s still tapped into youth culture, and like any great rapper, he wants to hear his new music in the mix in New York City.
While they could easily play some of his classics, he wants to be seen as more than an OG, and working with Hit-Boy is a strong bet to help him on that mission. Hit-Boy, famed for producing modern classics like “N****s In Paris,” “Clique,” and “Backseat Freestyle,” is one of the youngest people to do a Verzuz. He’s a young legend, but he’s also of the now, as indicated by his work on Travis Scott and Drake’s “Sicko Mode,” SOB X RBE tracks, and a slew of Juice WRLD Death Race For Love songs. Hit-Boy is as up for the task of marrying Nas with modern production as anyone.
Nas’ beat selection has always been an Achilles heel. He cleverly opined, “never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses they purchase” on Nasir’s “Simple Things,” but why not a little bit of both? His most iconic efforts were backed by strong production. Lyrics are vital to his formula, but compelling production should be, too.
In April, Nas told legendary hip-hop figure Ralph McDaniels that he had “fun” recording with Hit-Boy, which should bode well for what to expect. There’s no need to hear that quote and jump to a hyperbolic conclusion that Nas will be channeling his inner Lil Uzi Vert or Fivio Foreign. He doesn’t need to jump on distracting, bassy tracks, or drill beats. But “modern production” doesn’t necessarily mean quaking 808s and synth loops. His work on DJ Khaled’s “Album Done,” where he got busy over a smooth, subcutaneous “Fu-Gee-La” sample, shows what he’s capable of with modern production.
He gave the purists their fix on Lost Tapes 2. Now, he might be looking to feed the streets. Hearing Nas in boastful mode over some fresh, creative Hit-Boy production would be just what many rap fans need to bolster an already strong 2020 music-wise.