Art by Erik Charlton
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In Cleveland they call Doc Zeus ‘Doc Knockboots’
Six summers ago, Nas released his most recent album, Life Is Good. At the time, it felt like a triumphant coda to a storied twenty-year career that took Nas from a restless teenager living amongst the shootouts and civil unrest in the Queensbridge Projects to a fully-formed adult. On that album, Nas addressed the dissolution of his marriage to the singer Kelis. The picture he painted was that of two people who weren’t right for each other but were willing to give up the bitterness for the sake of leading a happy life. The cover even alluded to their breakup, as Kelis’ green wedding dress was draped carefully across his lap. Six years ago, Life Is Good felt honest and raw – a catharsis for a man at peace with the romantic mistakes he made in his life. Of course, the album turned out to be a lie.
In April, Kelis came forward with alarming revelations that Nas had physically and mentally abused her during their “tumultuous and toxic” marriage. According to Kelis, Nas would often fly into an alcohol-soaked rage at any perceived slight. In one particularly chilling incident, Kelis recalled seeing photos of pop singer Rihanna’s bruised face at the hands of Chris Brown while Kelis’ body was covered in similar bruise. She wondered if she should come forward with the abuse that she suffered. Kelis’ confessions along with similar accusations from Nas’ childhood girlfriend, Carmen Bryant, in her 2006 tell-all-book, It’s No Secret, put the rapper’s career in an ugly new light. Had Nas, one of the most legendary rappers of all time, been an abusive phony all along?
And so Nas’ new seven-song project, Nasir, arises in a fraught period in the man’s life. It not only emerges amidst the disturbing revelations of Nas’ #MeToo moment but within the building expectations of a new album after a long layover from making music. Further complicating matters, Nas failed to address Kelis’ allegations in public since she came forward nearly two months ago. Regrettably, Nasir continues that silence, and for a variety of reasons is easily the most limp and ridiculous effort of Nas’ long career.
Nasir is a project of strange pedigree. Produced entirely by Kanye West – amidst the producer’s own public MAGA meltdown – the album sounds insincere and labored. DJ Khaled might have prematurely declared “Nas Album Done” two summers ago, but Nasir does not resemble an album that has been marinating for longer than a couple of weeks. Instead, the seven-song EP(?) lacks any coherent thematic scope, musically or in the way of subject matter, that would tie it together.
Nas never sounds comfortable over Kanye’s (oddly lethargic) beats. Nas has always sounded his best over gritty, lo-fi bangers like “Made You Look” or “Nas Is Like” so Kanye is doing Nas no favors by providing a largely low-energy soundscape. Tracks like the international-inflected “Bonjour” and the lo-fi piano driven “Adam & Eve” are pretty if low key but feel like they were originally conceived for another rapper’s project. Moreover, the pace never picks up. We never get a track that snaps with any sense of urgency. The closet we get is the Slick Rick-sampling “Cops Shot the Kid” but the familiarity of the source (“Children’s Story”) does not put a fresh spin on a sample that has been done to death over the years.
Nas’ own performance isn’t doing himself any favors on this project, either. Lyrically, this is easily his weakest showing sinc the end of the Clinton years. He retreats into inane conspiracy theories on several songs and fails to substantively address Kelis’ allegations on the album. Nas’ rhymes have never exactly “historically nor scientifically accurate” but the album’s simple-minded conspiracies exacerbate an otherwise forgettable album into something deeply ridiculous. At one moment, he is championing the cause of anti-vaccinations on “everything” to the next ahistorically claiming that Fox News was started by a black man on “Not For Radio” – a conspiracy so inexplicable that you can’t even find a Reddit thread claiming this is true.
Moreover, Nas’ rapping has never sounded more forced and mechanical. Over the course of his career, Nas has always been the consummate writer, layering his rhymes meticulously with a sense of a great storyteller’ s perfectionism. He is often at his best when he gets lost in the details of a moment – whether it’s describing a hallway shootout or backstage of a Barbara Streisand concert. Here, his rapping feels like it was recorded in one take without any sense of how this fits into any larger thematic structure. For once, Nas feels like he’s finally aged as a rap writer and is out of any big ideas to make Nasir feel essential.
The ignominious presence of Kanye West isn’t helping the album, either. As the fourth album released in the G.O.O.D. Music’s month-long blitz, Nasir suffers from Kanye’s awkward voice appearing repeatedly on the album, too. Kanye spent most of May on increasingly reputation-destroying Twitter bender that started out praising right wing grifter Candace Owens’ “thinking” and escalated to the point the man was calling slavery “a choice.” The nascent Trump supporter’s presence ruins the few otherwise respectable efforts on the album like “Cops Shot the Kid,” a song about systematic police violence that is uncomfortably derailed by Kanye West inexplicably using the phrase “fake news.” On “everything,” Kanye’s cooing “don’t think like everybody else” plays like a MAGA lullaby.
Nasir isn’t going to permanently poison Nas’ legacy but it does beg the question is Nas’ finally washed up? Even in his prime, Nas never needed radio validation to feel like he was relevant force in the culture. His fan base was strong enough to continually support him. Nas was always privileged to be one of the few rappers whose legendary status made his new projects appointment listening for hip-hop fans. However, Nasir feels like the end of the road for the rapper because it’s an album that punctures his mystique. Perhaps, one day, he’ll be able to rectify the grievous harm he did to his wife – if that’s even possible – but for now…. Nas career done.