We have finally been graced with the highly anticipated eleventh studio album from Nas, simply entitled, ‘Nasir’. Expectations were high and no one knew in which direction he would take his music in at this point in his career, we were excited. The album was released following a listening party in no other than Queens, New York where his writing was birthed. Paying homage to his humble beginnings, Nas has always shown love to where he came from — Queensbridge.
Exclusively produced by Kanye West, the album has been received with great controversy and mixed feelings around the unlikely paring. Kanye publicly stated his thoughts, ‘slavery was a choice’. Somehow this notion seems to go against everything Nas has ever stood for, but he has always been an enigma of contradiction and controversy, his unpredictability is refreshing and we will never know exactly what he was thinking it was probably a very strategic move. If you listen to this album with an open mind, it’s clear working with Kanye has not affected the integrity of his lyrics nor have the beats distracted focus from his message. The production by Kanye West is lavish, some tracks have a grand atmospheric feel to them with grandiose orchestra sounds, it almost feels like cinematograph direction to compliment Nas’ iconic vivid descriptive verses.
Consisting of only seven tracks, with Nas it’s all about quality and not quantity, several of his lines have multiple meanings which could leave you pondering for hours trying to figure out which way he meant it, only to realize it works all ways, for this reason his tracks are something to be savored. Simultaneously I can’t blame rap fans for wanting more tracks from an artist who brings conscious thought in this new age of mumble rap and nonsensical language.
Nas has grown exponentially in the six years since his last album, both on a personal and business level. His career extends beyond music not only to sponsorship deals, multimillion dollar investments and community projects but also his fellowship at Harvard. A nice touch which celebrates the extent of his success is that this album is released on his own record label – Mass Appeal. He has come a long way. This is reflected on this album, still classic Nas but older and wiser, still addressing those topics which really matter. Nas’ laidback reflective approach may be interpreted as ‘lazy’ by some however I feel that it is just his mindfulness in his observation of changing times and staying calm amidst challenging situations. Perhaps this is why he has not directly addressed allegations from his ex-wife Kelis, in order to maintain focus on his overarching message. Or he may not feel that it is necessary to fuel the fire. Sadly, this album has come under much scrutiny for Nas’ the lack of response, I personally do not feel an album is the place to address that, and many reviewers forget allegations require evidence to be verified. Keeping to a professional review of his music and master lyricism, there are however several lines which could be interpreted as his distant commentary if you listen closely.
Straight into ‘Not for the radio’, we already know this is going to be against mainstream opinion and taboo subjects, ‘Colombians made crack, the government made stacks’ a mention of how American society made money from drug sales at the price of destroying communities. Heavy with political and historical references, discussing plights of the black man, as the hook sings ‘I think they scared of us’, implying the power of knowledge and empowerment, it’s a powerful track, it’s almost a call to arms of knowledge. Feat. Puff Daddy it almost feels like a follow up to ‘Hate me Now’ with a similar larger than life sound, also referring to ‘Escobar season’.
The album cover is an image taken by photojournalist, Mary Ellen Mark depicting children with their hands above their heads, holding up various objects including a toy gun against a wall, taken in South Dallas where this community has been destroyed by crack addiction. We all know Nas is very vocal about the improvised state of black communities in America, we later realize this image visualizes the images described in, ‘Cops shot the kid’ the second album track. Creative sampling uses chilling screams of Richard Pryor with samples from Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s story’, transformed into a beat, exhuming the madness of the situation. Nas addresses police brutality specifically that aimed at children from ethnic minorities, ‘disadvantages of the brown’. This concept is smart, he is telling the present-day children’s story. Kanye has a strong verse on this and they seem to be in sync on their values, ‘tell me who do we call to report crime when 911 doing the drive by’. It is not for the conservative.
‘White Label’ samples ‘Prison Song’ by Shahram Shabepareh, which in itself is a nice find from Persian funk genre, takes me back to looking around for Nas samples. A lot more personal addressing some of his demons, ‘Drinkin like Dean Martin is nothing to me, the spirits is something I can’t part, and it’s fun to me’, I interpret this line as a double meaning, he is a spokesperson for Hennessy which is part of his business ventures he can’t part, but is also known to be a heavy drinker and loves to party which is the darker side of the music industry. In this sense the ‘spirits’ could mean demons which possesses him. Kelis stated they partied a lot which could have lead to the detriment of their marriage. This track tells us ‘The odds are what you love can kill you like a heart physician who does from a heart attack’. We are all victims of our desires at times, imperfect humans.
‘Bonjour’ is suave and sophisticated, it sounds reminiscent of ‘Only an hour’ I get the same imagery of Nas mingling with the rich and powerful in the south of France as a member of the millionaire’s boys club. I can’t help but think his vivid descriptions are not only walk in his shoes of living a luxury lifestyle in the form of a well deserved brag, but also doubles up to serve us as a vision for our own selves as he reinforces that we all have the same potential to realize our visions. Nas touches on his relationships with women, ‘be careful who you getting pregnant, that’s long term stressing’, an obvious reference to his rocky relationship with ex-wife Kelis.
One of my personal favorites from this album is, ‘Everything’ ‘If I could change anything, I would change, Everything’ which makes us reflect on how many issues we are facing in the world today. Urging us to ‘don’t think the same as everyone else’ and be different, we are all unique and that should be celebrated, and that we should think outside of the box and not follow the masses. Nas got to where he is today by following that philosophy, going against the grain he became a rich black man in a predominantly rich white environment, ‘My first house, 11,000-square-feet mansion, It was a haunted by dead rich whites, Mad a nigga bought his crib to hang up pictures of black Christ, Circular driveways, black cars and black ice’. We should be proud of who we are and that we shouldn’t change ourselves for the acceptance of anyone else. Nas also references recent events where two black men had the police called on them for just waiting in Starbucks, ‘If Starbucks is bought by Nestle, please don’t arrest me/I need to use your restroom/And I ain’t buy no Espresso’. Another reminder that racism does still exist, even if you are at the top, but that should not stop you doing your thing.
The concept of ‘Adam and Eve’ is genius, it of course contains Biblical references to the first man and woman on Earth who gave into temptation. Once again Nas discussing his personal demons and giving into temptation for his love of women. I loved this reverse misogyny line ‘They wanna fuck me, have me under their belt, slightly offended, yeah that’s how I felt, that’s how it ended.’ he’s offended women will only want to be with him because of his name and status, to tick them off their list, and he’s ‘slightly offended’, this completely throws all ideas that women are the only ones who can be objectified. He then goes on to say, ‘I’m good at existing, existed in my truth, as long as I enjoy the fruit’ meaning the fruits of his labor are also the fruits of his sins and he’s going to enjoy everything he has worked hard for.
Nas addresses his legacy of longevity on ‘Simple Things’ his last track, as though longevity is an old friend and they go way back, a very clever presentation of the concept, they have a built a relationship and understanding of each other. Despite a more chilled out vibe this track seems to be a message for his haters, but done in such a way that it’s almost like Nas is showing us he does not care what they think because his legacy speaks for itself and he has nothing to worry about. ‘Never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses they purchase, Without production I’m worthless but I’m more than the surface, Want me to sound like every song on the Top 40, I’m not for you, you not for me, you bore me, I drop lines prestigious schools read to their students, Look at my album plaques, somebody agrees with the music’. Nas tells us he not known for his beats but his lyrics and those are not for the masses but those who really listen and understand him, his verses are even studied by students. He must be doing something right as his longevity and fanbase prove that. The last line on this track makes a beautiful end to the album, from what began as an aggressive ‘Not for the radio’ ends with, ‘Simple Things’ a more chilled vibe with lines like — ‘Everybody’s saying my humility’s infectious, I just want my kids to have the same peace I’m blessed with’, something so simple yet not easy to achieve. It felt like the war of the album was over which could represent all the drama of his private life and career and that everything Nas does is only to make a better world for his children, ‘You wealthy if your kid’s upbringing is better than yours’ as he stated on ‘Bonjour’.
Another classic album by Nas, I enjoyed each track for different reasons, the more I listen to it the more it speaks to me. It left me energized and motivated. Themes varied from civil rights movements and hedonism to religion, family and spirituality. There is definitely a lot of food for thought here, it cannot be appreciated with only one listen. A warning that this album may be misconstrued as a little incoherent to those not accustomed to Nas’ layered style, but for those who know it’s perfectly consistent with his legacy. Nas spits those thoughts in the back of your mind you don’t even want to think about let alone say out loud, I love those conversations, sometimes it is like he can read my sub-conscious mind. I feel we’ve had many paradigm shifts in our society, traditional values and expectations of human interactions have changed, but this album feels very familiar with its sense of traditionalism. We are taken on an introspective journey, leaving us wanting more out of life and believing we can get it too.