Mass Appeal Records
Highsnobiety

4.5/5.0

“Escobar season begins.” With these three words, Nas kicked off the listening party for his latest album NASIR, debuting all seven of the new Kanye West-produced tracks in his native Queens. Although NASIR is the fourth release in G.O.O.D. Music’s schedule this summer, the eleventh studio album from God’s Son arrives in the midst of unprecedented hype.

It’s been six years since Nas released his last album, Life Is Good, and almost a quarter of a century has passed since Illmatic first introduced us to Escobar’s uncompromising brand of poetic realism. With NASIR, the Street Poet needed to remind fans that he’s still a force to be reckoned with, while also living up to his own legendary body of work, all while fending off unfavorable comparisons with fellow G.O.O.D. Music releases like Pusha-T’s Daytona and Kanye West’s own work on ye and Kids See Ghosts.

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the public’s perception of Nas has changed dramatically following recent allegations from ex-wife, Kelis, who claims that the hip-hop star beat her regularly under the influence of alcohol. Such accusations have clouded the latest release from Nas for many, leading fans to wonder whether NASIR would live up to the hype and finally address the personal issues that he’s publicly refrained from addressing in recent months.

Musically, NASIR is everything that Nas needed right now and more. Not even the very best releases from G.O.O.D. Music this summer can compare to the intricate rhymes heard here, and if the seasoned veteran retired today, this would be the perfect way to end his unparalleled career. Bar after bar, Nas lays down the kind of lyrics that we haven’t heard consistently from the rapper since he first rose to fame in the ‘90s, and Twitter users seem to agree for the most part too.

Released just a day before the album itself, the provocative cover art made the political intent behind NASIR clear before even a single word was uttered. Originally captured by photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark in 1988, the image shows several black children lined up with their hands above their heads, holding what we can only hope are toy guns. Both timely and evocative of previous work in the star’s discography, this photo represents themes that NASIR returns to time and time again across the album’s brief running time.

While his peers have also explored themes of racism and violence more and more in recent years, no one dives in quite as deep as Nas. On the album opener “Not For Radio”, Escobar argues that “Abe Lincoln did not free the enslaved”, suggesting that African-Americans freed themselves “’cause we forced the proclamation”. Further references are also made to Reagan and the toxicity of Fox News, the latter of which Nas once dedicated a whole song to called “Sly Fox”. Tying in with the other G.O.O.D. Music releases, executive producer Kanye West enlists 070 Shake to sing a defiant refrain, telling Nas over and over “I think they’re scared of us,” something which Diddy reinforces with some shouty vocals that were added in the eleventh hour.

Kanye himself takes over singing duties alongside The-Dream on album highlight “everything”, where the pair lament the tragic life of a figurative “dark boy” who deserves love too, “scars and all.” The mood veers back and forth between optimism for the future and despair that past transgressions against black people continue to persist in America today. Rapping about the two African-American men who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks a few months back, Nas then urges people to boycott businesses who treat people unfairly according to the color of the skin, telling listeners that “the future’s us.”

Both “shackled by Western culture” and empowered “to meet presidents that respect me,” Nas is on a mission here to inspire a new generation, albeit in a far more pessimistic way than he did back on the hit single “I Can”. For a huge chunk of “everything”’s second verse, the esteemed rapper spits lines about a child’s first introduction to the pain of this world via immunization shots, proclaiming that it’s “great” for the young to question their suffering. At its heart, the song is all about his longing to change the world for the better, echoing the religious themes that have characterized much of his career on songs like the classic Lauryn Hill duet “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)”.

In fact, religion permeates the entire record from the ground up, whether it’s in the dramatic choral stirrings that blast out at the beginning of “Not For Radio” or the biblical themes threaded throughout “Adam and Eve”. Despite the serious trappings of the latter, Nas also has fun with the song in ways that executive producer Kanye West struggled with on more maniacal religious numbers such as “I Am a God”. Lyrics like “Cut the fat from the meat, extract the weak, bon appetit/No bacon, brothers is swine/It’s so hard to trust them cause my hustle is mine” flow like fine wine at the Last Supper and boast a skilled maturity that few of his contemporaries can match.

The occasionally heavy-handed exploration of race and religion here ensures that NASIR is unmistakably a Nas record, but these aren’t the only themes explored on the album. Sexual bravado comes into play too, most notably on “Bonjour” with the rather visceral and yet inventive couplet, “She didn’t see me coming/Now she’s an eyewitness.” Inevitably, occasional attempts at speaking French also occur, and with the phrase “Laissez le bon temps rouler”, Nas does indeed “Let the good times roll” with the kind of brags that long positioned him at the top of his game. On “White Label”, the NYC rapper boasts that he could demand “A million cash for a Nas feature” and on “Simple Things”, Nas hits out at critics who dismissed his previous beat selections, reminding listeners that he “Never sold a record for the beat/ it’s my verses they purchased.”

Such wordplay is testament to Escobar’s undiminished talent, but no song on NASIR hits harder than “Cops Shot the Kid”. Opening with a spoken word intro from deceased comedian Richard Pryor, a surprise scream then gives way to a Slick Rick sample which repeats with the phrase “The cops shot the kid” over and over. Taken from his iconic track “Children’s Story”, the refrain is devastating in its impact, personifying the trauma of discrimination at its most violent as screams continue to puncture the music throughout.

Using a sample from the late ‘80s as the backdrop to verses about police brutality highlights the never ending cycle of violence perpetrated against black youth by law enforcement in America. By referring to ‘50s lynch victim Emmett Till and American football player Colin Kaepernick in the same couplet, Nas reinforces this message further, stating that little has changed in over half a century. Like he says on the track, “White kids are brought in alive” but “Black kids get hit with like five”.

Kanye drops another verse on this track too, alluding further to the systemic racism that hinders the black community with unforgettable lines like “Tell me who do we call to report crime/If 9-1-1 doin’ a driveby.” The hard-hitting sample plays almost nonstop in the background, much like the news stories every day that play out on our screens in a never ending cycle of hatred and prejudice. With smart choices like this, it seems that Childish Gambino isn’t the only artist willing to step up and shine a flashing light on the state of America today.

It’s worth noting at this point that Kanye’s production excels throughout NASIR, quietly allowing the lyrics to shine through on melancholic songs such as “everything” while bringing soulful piano loops to the likes of “Adam and Eve”. With occasional throwbacks to the tone of his own album, 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye’s work on NASIR and every other G.O.O.D. Music album released so far this year has further cemented his reputation as one of the best producers in the game.

That said, there’s something rather disconcerting about hearing Nas rap about the horrors of slavery over beats made by someone who famously declared recently that slavery is a “choice.” However, to denounce Kanye for this while enjoying Escobar’s rhymes highlights a troubling disconnect that plenty of fans seemed to have already made regarding what Nas allegedly did to Kelis. While Kanye has been demonized by the media for aligning himself with a president whose policies rarely align with the black community, little has been said about Nas and the accusations of domestic abuse that he’s yet to publicly deny. Other offenders are usually condemned in the public domain, often to the point where their careers are ended entirely, yet Nas seems to have escaped the ramifications of the #MeToo movement for the most part.

In the days leading up to the release of NASIR, a number of fans hoped that the new album would finally acknowledge the elephant in the room – and it does to a point, but not in any way that could be considered satisfactory. The track now known as “White Label” was originally called “I Can Explain”, promising the kind of confessional tone that could provide Nas with the opportunity to comment somehow on the issue. Unfortunately, only one explicit reference to Kelis is made throughout the album, and that’s on the track “Bonjour” when Nas reminds listeners to “Watch who you gettin’ pregnant/ That’s long term stressin’”. Other insinuations also reflect poorly on his role in the situation, including the way he positions himself as a victim of sorts on “Adam and Eve” by worrying that his “sins” might be passed onto his children. On the same track, Nas also name-drops Othello, the Shakespearean character who strangled his wife in bed. Make of that what you will.

Janelle Monáe called #Timesup for inequality in the music industry earlier this year, but her Grammy speech appears to have been left unheard by many given the hype that continues to surround NASIR following Kelis’ accusations. Time will tell whether this excitement will overshadow the controversy. Either way, it’s unfortunate to say that Nas didn’t follow in the footsteps of fellow G.O.O.D. Music artists this summer and publicly exorcise his demons too, the least he could have done with such an opportunity.

Taken at face value, NASIR is an incredible artistic achievement. Tracks like “everything” and “Cops Shot the Kid” ensure that the latest effort from Nas already ranks among the very best albums released this year, a particularly impressive achievement given that 24 years have passed since his debut. Credit must be given to Kanye too for cutting out the filler that often plagues the veteran’s longer releases, bringing out the very best in Nas. It’s just a shame that Nas couldn’t bring out the best of himself too by acknowledging his past relationship with Kelis in a more respectful way.

This reluctance to truly open up like Kanye and Kid Cudi did recently on Kids See Ghosts is what holds NASIR back from true greatness. By remaining silent on the issue at hand, Nas forces the listener to make an uncomfortable choice and decide whether they can separate the art from the artist. If that’s indeed possible, then the 11th studio album released by the NYC icon ranks up there with some of his best work. If not, then perhaps it’s time for God’s Son to face judgement or risk being crucified like his namesake.

Nas’ ‘NASIR’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by David Opie
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