For an album that is 26 minutes in length, and comprised of seven songs, there are a surprising number of things to unpack on Nasir, the 11th album from Nas, and the fourth out of five in a series of albums hastily produced in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, all by Kanye West.
To begin with, while West has had to publicly, on many occasions, try to explain and defend his support of Donald Drumpf and his belief that slavery was a choice, among other things, Nas, born Nasir bin Ola Dara Jones, has yet to even comment on the recent allegations brought forward by his ex-wife, Kelis Rogers—in a recent interview, Rogers implied that, during their relationship, outside of mental abuse, Nas would become blackout drunk, and would proceed to become physically abusive with her.
So it’s difficult to reconcile any sliver of excitement about Nasir, because even before I pressed play, it already had that weighing heavily on its shoulders.
One could say that Nas has, more or less, been riding on the goodwill of his auspicious 1994 debut, Illmatic, and that since then, his career has been one of diminishing returns—sure he’s had some popular singles here and there, and involved himself in a rap beef with Jay-Z, but overall, Nas peaked right out of the gate, and has been unable to reach that level of near-perfection a second time.
Nasir, unfortunately, is also not the album that will reach that level of near-perfection.
I stop short of saying that it is a ‘bad’ album, but by the time it’s finished, you can see why it’s not very great. Lacking really any kind of cohesion across the its seven tracks, Nasir arrives as a failed attempt at urgency and relevancy—the production, while more interesting than the beats West used on is own maligned ye, are not among his finest, leading one to believe that his attempt at marathon producing five albums and releasing them one after another over the course of five weeks, is starting to take its toll on him as well as his creativity; and Nas, at age 44, sounds incredibly tired as an MC—his voice, always raspy, sounds more ragged here and exponentially less charismatic than it did in the past.
“Escobar season begins…”
When is ‘Escobar Season?’ Is it something that occurs at this time of year—when spring officially turns into summer? How long does it last? Does it overlap, at all, with what is referred to as ‘Yeezy Season?’
These are jokes of course—made at the expense of the opening line of Nasir, uttered as soon as the album begins, on the grandiose, trudging, and skittering “Not For Radio.” And truthfully, at this point, I really never want to hear the expression, “Escobar season begins,” again—thanks in part to the delayed listening party and botched roll out for Nasir.
The album itself, officially released late in the evening on June 15th, was premiered at a loosely organized event held in Nas’ native Queens the day before; the listening party, live streamed on YouTube, was supposed to begin at 8:30 p.m., Central Time—however, 8:30 came and went, and the event still had not started.
Eventually, the live stream began broadcasting an image of the Queensboro Bridge, and closer to 10 p.m. CST, the event began—or at least, something that seemed like the live stream began. The YouTube video would connect, and an image of Nas moving through a crowd of people gathered to listen, would appear, and “Not For Radio,” would begin playing—in this iteration, the bombastic strings and choral accompaniment would be heard first, then his voice would come in, announcing that ‘Escobar Season’ was beginning—and then….nothing. The live stream would stall out, and eventually, the feed went down completely, at least temporarily; it would be restored, and at the event, the album would be played through twice.
By morning, the day of the ‘global release’ to Nasir, the album still had not properly surfaced.
However, a rip of the live-streamed version was circulating online by the lunch hour—something to tide people over until it arrived on TIDAL late in the evening; by Saturday, June 16th, it was widely available across all digital platforms.
The confounding release, seemingly lacking any real organization at all, was eerily reminiscent of the strange roll out to West’s own The Life of Pablo in 2016.
The thing that is also strange is that, across the three iterations thus far, is that the album’s opening track, “Not For Radio,” is drastically different every time. When Nasir was available on Tidal, gone was the crash of choral voices and strings as the first thing you heard—no, now you heard Nas’ voice, uttering “Escobar season begins,” with no accompaniment, then the song actually begins. This version also includes a surprise appearance from Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, who barks at the listener that he will no longer be posing for photographs in 2018; ‘Candid shit only,’ he warns us.
By Saturday, the version of Nasir circulating was similar, yes, and included this statement from Combs—however, the track had been updated to run that voice through a layer of distortion.
Unfortunately, all these revisions and minor changes doesn’t make “Not For Radio” a better song1, or even a better and more interesting opening track; and whether you’ve chosen to listen to the ripped audio from the live stream, or a properly released and downloaded version, nothing is going to make Nasir a better, or more interesting album to listen to.
Of the album’s seven tracks, there are two that are worthy of being called ‘stand outs,’ one of which arrives second—the cacophonic “Cops Shot The Kid.” Sampling one specific line from “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick, the track finds Nas and West trading bars about police brutality against African Americans—a worthy topic, sure, but given West’s sudden penchant for conservatism and wearing a MAGA hat, his willingness to say, ‘Tell me, who do we call to report crime if 9-1-1 doin’ the driveby?’ seem, just ever so slightly, a little insincere.
It’s West who also appears on Nasir’s other high point—“Everything,” the lengthy track, also featuring vocals from The-Dream, that arrives in the album’s second half.
Sprawling across seven minutes, the vocal interplay between West (still using Auto-Tune after all these years) and The-Dream is surprisingly, actually quite beautifully arranged; their lines are repetitive, sure, I mean it is a pop song after all, but it’s a fascinating moment that lasts for the first two minutes of the song, prior to Nas’ arrival.
The rest of Nasir lurches along—again, it is not unlistenable, but it’s never a truly compelling or captivating experience. It’s just kind of ‘there,’ and I feel like a new record from an artist like Nas shouldn’t be the kind of thing that is relegated to background music, but it so easily slips into that.
Musically, there is little that connects one song to the next—and that’s kind of strange, considering the fact that West produced all seven tracks. One would think there would be something that carries over from track to track, however that isn’t the case, and it often causes for awkward and jarring transitions in tone—e.g. the bombast of “Not For Radio” leading into the shuffling and frenetic aggression of “Cops Shot The Kid” makes for a stark contrast, as does the sly whimsy of “Bonjour” arriving after the stuttering, sample based “White Label.”
Lyrically, Nas used to be one hell of a storyteller—exuding charisma and charm as he regaled listeners with tales from the streets of Queens on both Illmatic and its follow up, It Was Written.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare the Nasir Jones of 1994 and 1996 to the Nasir Jones of 2018—however, it’s difficult to comprehend how they are the same artist because throughout the course of Nasir, Nas rarely says anything compelling or evocative. According to the Genius annotation for the album, each of Nasir’s tracks is supposed to be representative of one of the seven deadly sins—an elaborate idea, though one that I doubt someone listening, without that insight, would be able to pick up—I mean, I have that insight, and each time I listen, I fail to make those connections.
Nas may have nothing compelling or evocative to say, however there are lyrics that do stick out; but those are not courtesy of Nas the street observer, but rather, Nas the conspiracy theorist, and Nas the anti-vaxxer.
On “Not For Radio”’s second verse, Nas raps about the Illuminati, a misunderstanding and hoax2 about Senator John Hanson, a theory that J. Edgar Hoover was black, and that ‘Fox News was started by a black dude,’ a confusing line that is apparently (and this is a bit of a stretch) a reference to the rise in popularity of Fox News following Obama’s first term; on “Everything,” he plainly spells out his disbelief in the vaccination of children. Shortly after that, he tries to be timely in his mention of the recent racial incident at a Starbucks, though any poignancy in the moment is lost completely in the desperation to keep the cadence and rhyme pattern going.
If allegations of spousal abuse—both physical and mental—aren’t going to stop his career, a dud of an album like Nasir isn’t going to be the end of Nas.
His catalog is littered with inconsistencies in his output, and this is one more to add onto that list. If anything this will be remembered for the frenzy surrounding its release, rather than the music itself, or as Nas would have you believe, his lyrics—on the album’s unceremonious closing track, “Simple Things,” he boasts, “Never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses the purchase—without production I’m worthless but I’m more than the surface.”
That may have been true in the past—but on Nasir, there is little, if anything, below the surface.
Prior to that, on “Adam and Eve,” Nas says, “I’m good at existing,” and that’s exactly what he’s doing with this batch of songs. It’s not a leap forward for him as an artist—rarely is there a late career album that would be, and it’s not a step back. For a rapper who spent six years between records, and in the interim, coasted on victory laps celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first (and best) record, simply existing in today’s modern landscape is all we can expect from him.
1- It seemed too difficult to shoehorn this criticism into the paragraph proper, but I did just want to mention that my real issue with “Not For Radio” is the appearance of vocalist 070 Shake, who comes in, literally out of nowhere, and sings the song’s incredibly insipid refrain. Shake, born Danielle Balbuena, is a 21 year old rapper and singer from New Jersey, signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music imprint. She was featured prominently on West’s own ye, and here, sounding digitized and warbled into oblivion, the song stops in its tracks so she can utter, “I think they scared of us.” It is, without a doubt, one of the weakest moments on Nasir, and it arrives in the first fucking song.
2- I had to look this one up, and I’m still a little uncertain about it, but it appears that there are two men in history named John Hanson—one of whom was a politician from Maryland who served as President of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. That fact, and that John Hanson, is often confused with another John Hanson, a Senator from Liberia. It would appear that Nasir Jones really needs to stay off the internet, or at the very least, away from conspiracy theory websites.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. He currently writes “The Column of Disquiet” for the recently launched Next Ten Words, and his writing has appeared on Spectrum Culture and in River Valley Woman.
He is a vegan, a huge jerk, and above all else, a cool rabbit dad.