After a six-year hiatus, the much-anticipated release of Nas’s album, Nasir, left fans and critics with mixed reactions. The album arrived as part of the “Wyoming Sessions,” a series of albums executively produced by Kanye West as part of a grand experiment of rapid-fire studio production. The other albums include Pusha T’s Daytona, West’s collaboration with Kid Cudi eponymously entitled Kids See Ghosts, Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. (Keep That Same Energy), and West’s own album, Ye. Each album is limited to seven tracks, and West has hinted at a loose thematic relationship to the seven deadly sins.
Although Nasir is not the first time West has collaborated with Nas (See Nas’s 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead or West’s 2005 album Late Registration), it presents the most extensive and experimental project by the duo. Critics have focused on the frenzied production of West as a reason why the album sounds unfinished or rushed in some spots and rhythmically, stylistically, and conceptually unbalanced in others. However, this kind of production has a rich history in Black music, particularly in the world of Jazz.
Consider, for example, Miles Davis’s legendary string of albums, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet and Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, all recorded in only two recording sessions in 1956. Jazz fans look back nostalgically on any apparent mistakes during the recordings as evidence of the sessions’ authenticity and creativity as a de facto series of live recordings. Or, more recently, there’s Esperanza Spalding’s Exposure, which featured the completely-livestreamed production of an album from a single recording session that lasted seventy-seven consecutive hours. Given West’s claim that he was looking to use the sessions as a space free of the pressures of perfection, the “Wyoming Sessions” certainly fall in the purview of this tradition. However, there is one important element of these kinds of recording sessions that is easy to overlook. Jazz musicians, such as Davis or Spalding, honed their craft by performing that kind of extended improvisation night after night for a series of years. Therefore, the creative stamina and focus needed to execute such bursts of recording amount to merely another night’s gig that just happens to be recorded. Such would be the equivalent of West or Nas going on tour and freestyling over every song in every concert for a number of years. That mode of performing is quite different from the more meditative and compositional approach to building the kinds of albums that find success in today’s current Hip Hop landscape.
Critics pointing to Nasir as a harbinger of Nas’s decline and the end to West’s seemingly infallible production skills appear to be missing this point. This fact may explain why Nasir seems to have failed so many expectations. Credit is due to the artists for an ambitious undertaking, but perhaps there was a lack of appreciation for how West’s breakneck pace of production with this project would alter the kinds of processes that Nas has relied on to perform at his best. The razor-sharp, lyrical dexterity that Nas has become known for seems dulled at various points throughout the album. Instead of the focused and confident bravado Nas usually projects, he often sounds reserved or uncomfortable. However, this kind of recording practice is risky precisely because of its potential to push artists out of their comfort zone to either sublime or disastrous ends.
The album begins with “Not For Radio,” which features both Nas and Diddy as a nod to fans of the their popular 1999 “Hate me Now” collaboration. The sampling of the grandiose theme from the film The Hunt For Red October adds a dramatic flair with Nas proclaiming “Black Kemet gods, Black Egyptian gods /Summoned from heaven, blessed, dressed in only Goyard.” However, from this point, the focus and cohesiveness of the song begins to dissolve. Aside from moments of lackluster writing (“Homie go hard like stole and rob it in a stolen car”), Nas quickly descends into black, political nihilism (“Shoot the ballot box, no voter cards, they all are frauds”) and weird conspiracy theories (“Edgar Hoover was black,” “Fox News was started by a black dude, also true”). Conspiracy theory discourse, as Molefi Kete Asante reminds us, has always had a place in black revolutionary rhetoric. However, many of these references are just plain false and have been thoroughly disproven. Further, in light of the resurgence of conspiracy theories as a rhetorical choice to deflect from political and social critique—appropriated most recently by President Donald Trump and his supporters—such remarks are more cringeworthy than provocative.
The following track, “Cop Shot the Kid” stands out with a catchy sampling of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.” Here, Nas offers some of the best lines on the album:
White kids are brought in alive
Black kids get hit with like five
Get scared, you panic, you're goin' down
The disadvantages of the brown
How in the hell the parents gon' bury their own kids
Not the other way around?
Reminds me of Emmett Till
Let's remind 'em why Kap kneels
West follows with lines such as, “Tell me, who do we call to report crime / If 9-1-1 doin' a driveby?” Yet, the social critique is diluted by the baggage of West’s scandalous comments about slavery and his pandering to the alt-right. There will always be appreciation for songs willing to explicitly engage injustice and police brutality, but both West and Nas have shown more effort and care for this kind of subject matter in the past, and here it feels more like a poorly executed attempt to sound current rather than an earnest consideration of a critical issue for Black and Brown America.
Despite its flaws, there are some beautiful moments on Nasir. For instance, The-Dream’s feature on “everything” is so sincere and melodic (“Dark boy, don't you cry / There's too much life left in those eyes”) that it distracts from the other more puzzling lines, such as the chorus (“If I changed anything, I mean anything / I would change everything”) or Nas’s return to anti-vaccination sentiment (“Takin' his first immunization shots, but this is great / The child's introduction to suffering and pain”).
Then there is “White Label,” which presents some of the most problematic lyrics on the album. Aside from the bars that are uncharacteristically shoddy (“And the odds is that what you love can kill you / Like a heart physician who dies from a heart attack”) there are his disturbing comments about his past exploits with women (“Layin' on the most expensive beds, still I'm losin' sleep / Next to Jet's Beauty of the Week 1993 / Chin grabber, neck choker, in her mouth spitter / Blouse ripper, ass gripper”). Nas has been recently accused of physically and mentally abusing his ex-wife, Kelis, in a vivid and scathing interview about their troubled marriage. The accusations cast a dark cloud over the album because this is not the first time the rapper has been accused of physical abuse in his past relationships. More important, it places Nas’s comments about women under an unforgiving microscope as listeners begin to question how seriously they can take his righteous anger at injustice or his self-aggrandizing while accused of such heinous acts. These kinds of contradictions echo throughout the rest of the album in songs like “Bonjor” (“Watch who you gettin' pregnant / That's long-term stressin”) and “Adam and Eve” (New girl every night, two girls was every other night / Sexual addiction, gangster tradition).
In many ways, Nasir presents a missed opportunity to hear Nas provide the level of depth, introspection, accountability, and vulnerability that old-heads are now expecting from Hip Hop’s elder statesmen, especially considering the probing confessions and extenuations offered by his former rival, Jay-Z, in 4:44. However, Nasir, shouldn’t be taken as a sign that such expositions will not arrive within future projects or that Nas has finally lost his edge. Hopefully, Nas will see Nasir as an opportunity to take in the feedback, address the allegations, and reboot.