Ever since Kelis accused Nas of getting blackout drunk and beating her up during their marriage, I knew I’d have a different listening experience with his music. The same happened to me with Kanye West, I just couldn’t get into his Ye album after the idiotic slavery comments and Trump advocacy that preceded it.
I didn’t want to not be able to enjoy a Nas project in the manner that I always have. In fact, more than any veteran, mainstream hip-hop artist, he hearkens to the essence of hip-hop as a culture instead of the billion-dollar industry it’s become today. His name is so weighted that merely stating allegiance is regarded as a badge of hip-hop purity — ask his traditionalist stans who take it upon themselves to strictly govern what “is” or “isn’t” hip-hop. In an ever-expanding pool of abusive or dimwitted artists, some of whom make you want to throw the whole rapper out, Nas could be counted on as a guilt-free outlier. But no more.
No one knows the true nature of Nas and Kelis’ relationship, but the compulsion to inherently discredit women’s allegations in order to keep our peace of mind has to stop. Kelis’ allegations have to be taken seriously. While Nas may be better with his words than 99.9% of men, perhaps he’s just as susceptible as any to abusive behavior. I knew that listening to his next project — which Kanye announced shortly before Kelis’ interview — would be more complicated to evaluate than his past work.
That reality was compounded by the presence of Kanye as curator. Kanye lazily addressed his “slavery” comment by stating that wasn’t even him “on a wild day.” Similarly, Nas succinctly deflects the Kelis allegations by rhyming, “go write whatever blog, messiness is not ever the god, do what’s necessary, I’m never worried,” on the pensive “everything.” They’re two prideful, self-aggrandized moments that rouses their devout supporters as much as they agitate their critics. It seems like they’re just not going to cogently address why so many people are disappointed in them.
With that gaping caveat in tow, we get Nasir, a reflective project that shows Nas residing in a space as a hip-hop OG and hood mentor. As tired as the phrase is, it surely aspires to be “grown man rap.” The album weighs in at a GOOD seven tracks, like every other project Kanye has been doing this June. That tracklist is probably too short for those waiting on new Nas since 2012’s Life Is Good, but it will have to do for now.
At least the Kanye gamble mostly paid off, as Ye laced him with one of the more well-rounded soundscapes of his career. There are no sparse, more-apt-for-slam-poetry beats on the album, which has bogged down the musicality of his past projects. Even the tracks hampered by repetitive samples — “Cops Shot The Kid” and “White Label” — are captivating in their ingenuity and nostalgia factor. That said, the mixing throughout the project could be much better, as Nas’ clarity often fights with the vocal samples and hinders the centerpiece of any Nas project — his lyrics. Nas also sounds uncharacteristically out of pocket during some junctures of the album, a development that could be as much about the rushed nature of the project (Diddy added vocals the day of release) than attrition.
The Slick Rick-chopping “Cop Shot The Kid” is the album’s most upbeat moment, where Nas holds true to his legacy of paying homage to the ‘80s that molded him. The track exhilarates at first in its “how has no one ever done this” brilliance, but eventually, the dizzying tornado of a sample loses steam. Lyrically, Nas turns in a strong verse while Kanye shows a grasp of policing’s systemic flaws, a take that’s perplexing based on his newfound devotion to conservative pundit Candace Owens, who denies police brutality is racially motivated.
These are perhaps the strongest examples of not being able to merely nod your head and suspend disbelief within this pair’s world as hip-hop Supermen, as both have been their own kryptonite of late. There are other head-scratching moments on the project, ripe to be picked apart and ridiculed by those already irritated at Nas.
The rapper’s brand of pro-Blackness has always been heavily derived from the 5% percent, Pan-African scholar culture that runs rampant in New York City, especially during his early ‘90s upbringing. Aside from being strictly patriarchal and respectability politic-laden, the scene often relies on supposedly secret teachings that aren’t valued for their truth as much as their usefulness to a pathology that centers Blackness as divine. They contend that a worldwide fear of Blackness is a factor in nearly every major historical event — and their retelling. It’s a worldview ingrained in truth, but the means used to project it don’t hold up under scrutiny.
That mindset is the impetus for Diddy proclaiming, “that’s why they be killing us and shooting us… ’cause of our greatness,” on ”Not For Radio.” That’s also the basis for Nas’ rhymes about how Fox News’ founder and J. Edgar Hoover are Black. Even if those were facts, they wouldn’t substantially change Fox News’ modern-day influence, or what Hoover did to stifle the Black Power movement in the ‘60s. He delivered the bars as if they were ether, but they just make a listener long for more edifying social commentary such as Phonte’s No News Is Good News or Jay-Z’s 4:44, which actually inspired a financial advice book from a personal finance expert.
It’s those lines and a later admission of skepticism toward vaccinations on “everything” that serve as the polarizing junctures confining Nas’ universe. Much like Kanye and his fraught “love” movement, Nas resolves to exist in his own bubble, where only his supporters and their shared beliefs exist in his orbit. He’s always resided in a unique space in mainstream hip-hop, rightfully regarded as a legend on par with Jay-Z even when his sales and accolades aren’t on his onetime foe’s level. But he doesn’t care. He rhymes the following on “Simple Things,” emphatically setting the terms:
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
Want me to sound like every song on the Top 40
I’m not for you, you not for me, you bore me
The interestingly-sourced “Adam And Eve” shows him in a similar mood, rhyming about why he’s made the entrepreneurial shift in his career. “They ain’t stopped printin’ money, ’cause they made mine,” he rhymes after admitting the chase for cash isn’t always easy because “insecurities is keepin’ you disabled.” He also rails at “fictional kings” who “all the same, with gray hair and still mean muggin’.” Based on the number of young rappers who reflect on not having guidance from their elders in the streets, it’s compelling to hear him call out his age group for the same thing, by rapping “gray hairs of wisdom, that means you seen somethin’ / say somethin’, you stay frontin.’”
He delivers more insightful bars on “everything,” though it’s sandwiched in between a little too much vocalizing from Kanye West And The-Dream. Though their lithe, contemplative vocals impress, their dominance of the track’s first half makes it sound like Kanye and The-Dream featuring Nas instead of the other way around.
They would be better served augmenting his verses in a more measured fashion, like Tony Williams did on the glorious “Bonjour,” the standout track of the album. Over a gleaming sample that radiates a Parisian elegance, Nas raps about how he and his circle “eat at selective kitchens / speak on our next intentions / over-creamy Polenta, it come chef recommended.” The track frames him as a regal rap elder statesmen, living a charmed life off the strength of his hip-hop legacy.
But the aforementioned commentary and his sophisticated, self-assured projection have to be taken with a grain of salt because he doesn’t address the elephant in the room in any substantive manner. Nas has made songs about his father, his daughter, and his two exes Carmen and Kelis, but doesn’t at all broach the accusations of abuse made against him. His sidestepping undermines the character of the project; his proclamations and insights feel void when he’s not fully existing “in his truth” like he claimed on “Adam And Eve.” Nas is authoritative and autobiographical throughout the album but refuses to address Kelis’ accusations, which comes across like pleading the fifth instead of admitting guilt.
Which is why my experience listening to Nas has officially changed, as I could only enjoy the album in spite of the shadow of abuse allegations. Instead of representing a departure from complicated, polarizing artists, he’s become the most disheartening example of such. It’s little surprise that young, controversial artists ignore their misdeeds when hip-hop veterans can’t be forthright about their own mistakes or even acknowledge allegations. A denial would’ve been better than pretending he was too good for “messiness.”
While that vague response may be good enough for many of his fans, for me it underscores an expanding fracture between romanticized images of our rap favorites and the realities of who they are. More than ever, fans are being forced to consider how to support and enjoy their favorite artists while holding them accountable — in whatever way possible — for their abhorrent conduct or statements. But first, artists have to hold themselves accountable. If the genre will continue to grow, its most respected elders need to turn inward and examine the dire consequences that a climate of inherent misogyny — that they sustained — has created. That’s real grown man rap.
Nasir is out now via Mass Appeal/Def Jam. Get it here.