Happy 15th Anniversary to Nas’ The Lost Tapes, originally released September 23, 2002.
The consensus about Nas’ career trajectory goes something like this: he debuts with the undeniably classic Illmatic (1994), shifts to a new sound with his 1996 sophomore effort It Was Written, and then spends the next 20 years releasing a mixed bag of albums that thrill and disappoint fans and critics in equal measure. There are highs (2001’s Stillmatic, 2002’s God’s Son, 2012’s Life Is Good), lows (2000’s Nas & Ill Will Records Presents QB’s Finest) and everything else that falls somewhere in between. It makes being a Nas fan exciting and frustrating, but he does at least always keep us guessing.
The Lost Tapes sits towards the higher end of his back catalog. It arrived in 2002, a year after Nas had reaffirmed his superior status in the rap game with Stillmatic. The jury is still out in 2017, but back then, many awarded Nas the victory in the infamous battle with Jay-Z, thanks to the scathing “Ether.” The attention reenergized Nas as he headed towards the release of his next studio album at the end of 2002, God’s Son. Keen to keep the momentum going until then, Nas and Columbia Records unleashed The Lost Tapes, a compilation of tracks left on the cutting room floor during sessions for previous albums including Stillmatic and I Am… (1999).
When a song doesn’t make an album’s final track listing, it’s often for a reason. Fortunately, with The Lost Tapes what we get doesn’t feel like a throwaway hodgepodge of misfires or filler. From the opening track, “Doo Rags,” it’s obvious this is the storytelling Nas from Illmatic, and not the overblown, excess-driven Nas that emerged after his debut. It’s the same voice that once so vividly described a childhood played out in dire circumstances. The lyrical sharpness may have faded a little but it’s still there in lines like, “That was an uncanny era, guns in my pants, yeah / X-Clan hair, with dreads at the top of my fade / homicidal feds on the blocks where I played b-ball / that's when I wondered was I here for the cause or because / 'cause Ray Charles could see the ghetto / was told to stay strong and I could beat the devil.”
It’s no easy listen, but bleakness is where Nas excels, evidenced again on “Black Zombie," with rhymes such as, “Let's all get down and get up / victims walking 'round with Down's Syndrome, all stuck / fainting, shouting, catching Holy Ghost in church / scared to do it for ourselves 'less we see somebody doing it first / we begged, we prayed, petitioned and demonstrated / Just to make another generation - black zombies.” Then there’s the heartfelt “Poppa Was a Playa/Fetus” with its first-hand depiction of an upbringing as heartbreaking as the one Ghostface Killah rapped about on “All That I Got Is You.”
Nas is also a producer’s rapper, flexing to wherever the beat takes him. And that’s sometimes the problem with his music. For every sporadic Large Professor or DJ Premier beat there are tons of others by producers who fail to inspire Nas and bring out the best in him. The selection of instrumentals on The Lost Tapes can feel muted and simplistic, as though some of them should have been left unheard after all. Even a producer like Alchemist is far from his usual high standard on “My Way.” Surprisingly though it arguably works in favour of the album. The more minimalist and dull the beats are, the more heightened Nas’ lyrics become.
Nas will probably never shake the sense that every new album is being benchmarked against his hallowed debut. To paraphrase his once nemesis, it’s a gift and a curse. The Lost Tapes isn’t worthy of as much praise as Illmatic, but it’s certainly one of the better moments of his storied career since.