Nas: Nasir review – shifting, mercurial, but ultimately queasy listening

It’s producer Kanye West’s most consistent 2018 release, but Nas mixing social justice and conspiracy theory sits awkwardly, as does his resistance to address domestic violence allegations

And so, the Kanyethon continues. Nas’s first album in six years is the fourth Kanye West-helmed album in as many weeks (not counting his contributions to the new Christina Aguilera album) with at least one more album still to come. The forthcoming appearance of GOOD Music-signed vocalist Teyana Taylor’s KTSE is meant to signal the end of this deluge (comprising West’s Ye, his Kids See Ghosts collaboration with Kid Cudi and Pusha T’s Daytona), but given what you might politely call West’s capricious nature and the slightly frenzied edge to his current burst of creativity, who would bet against us all being here for months to come, looking on as the now-famous whiteboard in West’s Wyoming studio appears on Twitter yet again?

The problem with West’s ongoing artistic splurge has been one of quantity over quality. In a world where an album can’t arrive without a staff of 350 co-writers, producers and executive producers onboard and nothing left to chance, you can understand the appeal of, as West recently put it, “trying new ideas without the fear of not being perfect”. But equally, even as these records arrive at a tidy seven tracks and less than 25 minutes apiece, the feeling that West might be spreading his talents a little too thin – that he might have been better off condensing his best beats into one album rather than releasing three uneven ones – has haunted his 2018 output so far.

That said, Nasir may be the series’ most musically consistent yet. The self-styled “ghetto Othello” is conceivably one of the few figures in hip-hop to whom West feels a degree of deference – “I feel like I’m 18 years old again when I’m making beats for Nas,” he tweeted – which perhaps led him to focus his attention and energy, with frequently spectacular results. West, or someone on his team, has been busy digging out perfectly apropos samples from arcane sources. Not for Radio mines the soundtrack of movie The Hunt for Red October for its eerie choral/orchestral sample; White Label’s braggadocio is backed by a suitably grandiose-sounding snippet of exiled Iranian pop singer Shahram Shabpareh. Another Iranian artist who fell foul of the Islamic revolution, Kourosh Yaghmaei, provides the lo-fi piano figure that weaves its way through Adam and Eve, the autumnal melancholy of its sound a perfect fit with the reflective lyrics: “Grey hairs of wisdom, that means you’ve seen something.”

‘Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter, blouse-ripper, ass-grabber’ ... Nas performing in Glasgow, June 2015.
‘Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter, blouse-ripper, ass-grabber’ ... Nas performing in Glasgow, June 2015. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns via Getty Images

Slick Rick’s 1988 single Children’s Story, meanwhile, has been sampled by everyone from Will Smith to Aesop Rock to Eminem, but its use on Cops Shot the Kid is a masterstroke of recasting. Nas transforms one of the most playful, airy voices in hip-hop history into something disturbing and insistent, zeroing in on one line in Slick Rick’s straightforward morality tale about the inadvisability of “robbin’ old folks” and teasing out an entirely different meaning. The original protagonist was on the wrong side of the law, it suggests, but he wouldn’t have ended up dead if he was white: “Get scared you panic you’re going down – disadvantages of the brown.”

The real issue with Nasir is Nas, who seems to have taken it upon himself to become as mercurial as his producer, his rhymes shifting from acute, powerful indictments of racism to stuff that makes no sense, or seems to be there purely for the purposes of provocation. On Everything, a potent series of lines about the recent arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks sits right next to some more of Nas’s indispensable thoughts about the dangers of having your children vaccinated, a theme he first alighted on during 2001’s Stillmatic. The righting of historical wrongs – “Abe Lincoln did not free the enslaved” – rubs shoulders with, well, historical wrongs: “SWAT was created to stop the Black Panthers … Edgar Hoover was black … Fox News was started by a black dude.” The clear-eyed brilliance of Cops Shot the Kid shares space with conspiracy theory cobblers about the Freemasons.

The one topic Nasir doesn’t really address are the recent allegations of domestic violence made by his ex-wife Kelis, beyond some all-purpose stuff about bad publicity: “When the media slings mud we use it to build huts.” In fact, suggesting that Nas is ignoring what Kelis had to say about his drunken violence in the hope it will all blow over is very much giving him the benefit of the doubt – you could just as easily interpret some of what he has to say here as him revelling in it. “Drinking like Dean Martin is nothing to me,” he suggests at one juncture. At another, he boasts of himself as a: “chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter, blouse-ripper, ass-grabber.” It’s hard to imagine anyone would actually be that stupid, but intentional or not, it makes for queasily unpleasant listening, an ugly blot on an album whose flaws cannot be laid at the door of its producer.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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