The Lost Tapes II
Mass Appeal/Def Jam
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Listeners typically greet an artist’s bundling of outtakes and album rejects with a completionist’s curiosity at best, and shrugging indifference at worst. Nas’ The Lost Tapes (2002) is one of music’s most notable exceptions to this rule. Comprising frill-and-feature-free compositions cast aside from the unreleased double-disc version of 1999’s I Am… (an early victim of digital hijacking) and 2001’s career-redeeming Stillmatic, the compilation favored contemplative reflection, community optimism, and compelling storytelling over the self-aggrandizement, tough-guy threats, and pop conformity of his post-Illmatic output.
The outcome: The Lost Tapes is often considered to be the true successor to the emcee’s impossibly lauded debut; a lean and sober epiphany after a drunken orgy of excess and ill-begotten success. When asking one to rank their favorite Nas LPs not named Illmatic, it’s common to hear “Does The Lost Tapes count?” as a counter-question.
Originally intended for a 2010 release, The Lost Tapes II contains a wide swath of cutting-room-floor material recorded between 2006 and 2018. Like its predecessor, there are no guest rap verses, however, a handful of singers manage to sneak their way onto hooks. That’s about where the similarities begin and end. Instead of the original’s uncannily synergistic selection of bafflingly abandoned excellence, the new edition mostly feels like a grab bag of above-average demos. Fortunately, Nas’ above-average demos are frequently more fascinating than many rappers’ best endeavors.
This is perhaps best exemplified by “Queensbridge Politics.” Over Pete Rock’s effectively simple breakbeat and somber keys, Nas delivers a sprawling, singular verse that goes from FaceTime macking, to longing thoughts of his son, to mourning Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, to a Cliffs’ Notes summary of Queensbridge’s rich musical history (reminiscent of his well-meaning but poorly executed “Unauthorized Biography of Rakim”), and back to eulogizing Prodigy before abruptly concluding with “Wish you was here with us, P.” Even in its unfinished state, the record manages to be exceedingly poignant and sincere in its schizophrenic brevity. You want Nas to expound, though as he admits during the closing ad-libs, “It’s heavy, man.”
If you raised an eyebrow at the name Pete Rock, you’re likely not alone. In addition to the Chocolate Boy Wonder himself, The Lost Tapes II’s impressive-on-paper production lineup includes an Illmatic fan’s wet dream of true-school purveyors like RZA, Alchemist, No I.D, and Statik Selektah, along with high-dollar hitmakers Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, and Kanye West.
Of the above, Statik Selektah’s frenetic drums and accelerated Angela Bofill sample on “Lost Freestyle” inspire the set’s most impressive delivery: “Amateur Hanna-Barbera characters know they envy / The illest Hennessy Black sipper with loaded semis / You pick-of-the-week, voted-in rappers you go against me / You can't tantalize a call girl with just a roll of pennies.” The track lacks a chorus or central theme yet serves as a pleasing flow showcase and a potential preview of impending greatness from the two.
Of RZA’s two contributions, “Highly Favored” is the clear winner, which thankfully sounds more like the vintage drunken-monk funk he provided on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Molasses” than the synthetic digital orchestra backdrops of this year’s promotional Of Mics And Men EP. The second verse contains a prime example of the knowledge-kicking Jay-Z once attempted to mock, but secretly loves: “This daily bread / Holy bread / Alphabetical numerals, codes of red / What's more dense, gold or lead? / What's more expensive? / The OG said, ‘No matter what it is, rent it / And never buy it / It's all temporary possessions / We don't own nothing on this Earth but our soul, and that's the lesson’.”
With one glaring exception, The Lost Tapes II has no obvious duds, though it ain’t hard to tell why several of these songs were previously unreleased. The submerged percussion and angelic choir of Swizz Beatz’ surprisingly subdued “No Bad Energy” makes for a fitting album opener, but the lethargic hook needs serious work. RZA’s combination of Joe Tex’s infinitely-used “Papa Was Too” break and prog rock violins and strings on “Tanasia” isn’t the Wu-Tang luminary’s most imaginative effort, but it bumps hard enough. The same applies to Nas’ “Tanasia / Tanasia / If you not from Queensbridge, then you must be from Asia” refrain sounding like a placeholder for something less clumsy and puzzling (what if she’s from Schenectady?).
About that glaring exception: while it’s noble and novel to pay homage to a jazz icon, “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack)” is the epitome of a concept best left on a studio’s whiteboard. Nas impressively keeps pace with Dave Brubeck’s nimble piano and Al Jarreau’s elastic vocal contortions, but some things just aren’t meant to be rhymed over. The result is a painfully awkward and downright goofy affair that would stick out like a sore thumb in a bag full of sore thumbs. While not the worst of the emcee’s very bad ideas—the Edward G. Robinson-as-hip-hop-gumshoe “Who Killed It?” may forever wear that dubious crown—this Super Mario Bros. 2 boss-theme rap should’ve stayed vaulted indefinitely.
Although the rest of The Lost Tapes 2 is satisfying enough to clear the stench of the half-cooked viral marketing experiment known as Nasir (2018), this long-awaited sequel is unlikely to make anyone’s top-five Nas album list. In that regard, it functions more like other compilations of its ilk, featuring just enough flashes of brilliance to keep fans eager for whatever’s next.
Notable Tracks: "Beautiful Life" | “Highly Favored” | "Lost Freestyle" | “Queensbridge Politics” | “Royalty”