My standard for a classic album is one that clearly changes the direction of its genre, and for hip-hop, my benchmark for over 24 years has been Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic. Regarded for adding new dimensions to street narration and cinematic lyricism, Illmatic also ended the era of producers overseeing the entirety or majority of an album’s beat selection. Nasir Jones, having solidified his name amongst the hip-hop elite with his first outing, and one of music’s most impressive catalogs in the decades that followed, now sits in the comfortable driver’s seat of releasing music as a credible musician with an invaluable perspective on social disparity.
Reverting back to hip-hop’s original album format of one rapper and one producer, the busiest man of 2018, Mr. Kanye West took on the exclusive duties of lead beat-making for Nas’ eleventh studio album entitled NASIR. Listeners arrive at the seven-track album’s proverbial “a-ha moment” at almost the exact mid-point with the third song “White Labels” which begins with what appears to be the braggadocious detailing of one of rap’s few long-term millionaires enjoying the fruits of his shrewd business deals.
When Nas’ vocals re-emerge for the song’s second verse, “It's kinda terrific, the product of Slick Rick / somebody woulda told me then I would come outta this shit rich / and start up a business, I woulda thought they was playin' / all them niggas I ran with, all that weight they was weighin,” we begin to see why Nas named his album NASIR, and why he selected a photograph taken from The Texas Monthly’s 1988 story “The War Zone” as his album cover. With over a quarter of a century under his belt as a lyrical technician, Nas’ top-notch musical IQ metaphorically crafts an album themed on showing the value of young black life by narrating his own journey from impoverishment to becoming a cultural shifter through penmanship.
The preceding song “Cops Shot the Kid” displays Kanye’s step toward the forefront of the musical process, and the benefit of an album having an exclusive musical arranger. Kanye’s intro featuring Richard Pryor’s vocals stand out as the album’s apex of artistic chemistry, along with the sampling of Slick Rick who Nas repeatedly credits as one of his major musical inspirations.
“Everything” reflects the contrast of the duo’s chemistry, where Kanye’s choice of a sleepy minimalist track and prolonged vocals provide a lullaby backdrop for a somewhat confusing Nas dissertation on materialism. The track does have some unorganized bright spots particularly in the final verse, “Did good for a staircase loiterer, euphoria / what you saw when you seen a teen turn to a warrior / did every Fourth of July, bustin' in the sky / it was important to a guy who was mob-minded.”
The album’s nod to Nas’ loyal following comes just before the conclusion at track 6, with ”Adam and Eve,” where Kanye seemingly attempts to recapture the magic of Illmatic’s opening song “New York State of Mind.” West has always proven to be a student of his production predecessors, like Pete Rock and DJ Premier and pays homage with his sample of Persian musician Kourosh Yaghmaei’s piano chords from “Gole Yakh” reminiscent of Premier’s sample of Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain.” Nas’ lyrics paint a more mature canvas of city life, from a ghetto kid who once asserted “Y'all know my steelo with or without the airplay / I keep some E&J, sittin' bent up in the stairway / or either on the corner bettin' Grants with the cee-lo champs / laughin' at baseheads tryna sell some broken amps.” Nas is now in a completely different position, celebrated with rhymes “I'm in my neighborhood in stadiums, the Mets' kind / with restaurants and Carbone, spicy rigatoni / Go hard, a red Bordeaux, oh God.”
Nas’ mastery of wordplay and vast vocabulary still place him at the top of his craft as we witness him easily belt out tongue twisting rhymes like, “What come first, peace or the paper / before I had a piece of paper, peace was in my favor / before I sat to eat at the table, it had leeches and traitors / cut the fat from the meat, extract the weak, bon appetite.”
I don’t project that NASIR will change the direction of the current state of hip-hop, and I’m not sure it was intended to. But it is a solid offering that calibrates the journey of a tenured artist. It is a testament to Nas’ standing as arguably the premier lyricist of his generation, but also proves that even rap’s “street disciple” in many ways has room for growth and further social observation. While there is always room for courage in addressing racism, classism, and police brutality, NASIR still clings to some good old-fashioned hip-hop misogyny. Lyrics that even briefly reference “chin grabbing,” “neck-choking,” and “blouse-ripping” should have been disturbing 20 years ago, but deservingly sound outdated from 40 year old men in 2018.
Comprised of mostly good music, even in its flaws, NASIR leaves listeners intrigued as to the possibilities of its author’s next chapter.
Notable Tracks: “Adam and Eve” | “Cops Shot the Kid”