Nas sounds old. On Nasir, as on albums past, the former king of New York mixes matters of politics and pleasure. But the lyrical agility that characterized Nas’ early, genre-defining work is missing here; a sense of fatigue takes its place. NASIR is also producer Kanye West’s most lukewarm recent effort; the beats are formulaic and — save standout “Cops Shot The Kid” — thoroughly forgettable. The album should be a retrospective victory lap for two icons of hip-hop; instead, NASIR rings hollow, and fails to capture the innovator’s spirit that cemented Nas as one of the foremost storytellers of the 1990s.
The album’s shortcomings are most apparent when juxtaposed with Nas’ former rival Jay-Z’s last solo project, the No I.D.-led 4:44. The centerpiece of that work was emotional sincerity, as an ex-titan dared to grapple publicly with his weaknesses. NASIR emulates 4:44 at least in form, as West worked as executive producer for the former just as No I.D. commanded the latter. But the album lacks the vulnerability that made 4:44 a compelling record, opting instead to present its bling-era bluster largely without critique. Certainly marital infidelities, Jay-Z’s vice, are an easier subject to tackle than Nas’ alleged violence. Singer-turned-chef Kelis, to whom Nas was married until 2010, alleged that he was mentally and physically abusive throughout their five years together. Kelis compared the abuse she faced to the highly publicized assault Rihanna suffered by vocalist Chris Brown. Furthermore, in 2006, ex-girlfriend Carmen Bryan, who played a part in the Jay-Z and Nas beef, accused Nas of punching her in the face. In this context, lines such as “Pray my sins don’t get passed to my children” — one over whom Kelis has custody — feel ambiguous and rather troubling.
Instead of personal problems, then, Nas chooses to recount his life of luxury. If nothing else, NASIR is a master class in opulent world-building, as Nas’ eye for detail brings each sight and flavor to life. West tweeted out a list of the seven deadly sins in anticipation of the album, and some have theorized that each song corresponds to a sin. From ganja to sex to Bordeaux, Nas runs the whole sinner’s gamut, leaving listeners wanting a shower. He even finds time to plug his daughter’s makeup line, Lipmatic. But Nas has bragged for a quarter century; here, at last, the bravado feels dated. The dead air that proliferates throughout seems to hint that perhaps he, too, is tired. If he would only vocalize that feeling, the album would seem more complete.
Nevertheless, NASIR has some highlights. “Cops Shot The Kid” joins N.E.R.D’s “Don’t Don’t Do It!” in the resurgence of bangers about police brutality. The track strikes a more somber tone than its predecessor, as tense synths creep up on the eponymous vocal sample. The most energetic song on the album, it is also the most cogent political statement, in stark contrast with the pseudo-historical word soup that precedes it: “Not for Radio.” The features, too, stand out. 070 Shake is, as she has been throughout the summer, a consistently powerful voice, and she shines on the few moments she is afforded. The-Dream imbues “Adam and Eve” with nostalgic melancholy. And The World Famous Tony Williams is downright delightful, his playful bonjours on “Bonjour” evoking languid, lustful Paris.
Ultimately, NASIR will do as much to tarnish the legacies of those responsible for the album as Nas’ string of subpar solo works and West’s shenanigans have. What Nas left off NASIR says more than his lyrics can. From the vapid “Everything” to the muddy “Simple Things,” the project oozes mediocrity, a far cry from the epilogue to Illmatic that fans envisioned. When he penned that record, Nas was praised as worldly beyond his years; here he is hip-hop’s Peter Pan, refusing to take his place among the old guard. He was once the emperor of New York — like Adam and Eve, it appears he has no clothes.