By Thomas Johnson, June 15 2018 —
For hip-hop heads steeped in tradition, Nas is the platonic ideal of a rapper. It’s his voice, his cadence and the way he makes syllables and vowels dance and spin themselves into concrete-corner epics. He embodied the jaded innocence of the boy-on-the-corner — the purest distillation of hip-hop. He’s the archetype, the child on his own album cover that helped define the genre. Only a twist of fate could link Nas to the man who defined rap in the aughts, moulding it in his own image. Nasty Nas has been endearingly referred to as the quintessential street prophet for most of his career. It only makes sense he would preach the word of a self-anointed god.
Like DAYTONA and unlike ye, Nasir, the latest of Kanye’s weekly micro-albums, benefits from its brevity. Nas’s last LP, 2012’s Life Is Good, acted as a revitalization to his career but still suffered from the lack of consistency present in his earliest albums. At seven songs — a format that’s proving to work well for projects helmed by West, whose latter-day career has been plagued by a lack of focus — Nasir has no room for non-essentials.
There’s no denying Nas has lost a step but asking him to tap into the youthful vigour that made him a staple a quarter-century ago is unfair. There’s wealth in wisdom as Nas is playing the part of greyed guru. His mic presence may have lost some of its luster but he’s still able to evoke street frescos with lines like, “The ghosts of gangsters dance, chinchillas shake on the hanger / The force of this banger / Yeah my language advance, my cadence amazing.”
If nothing else, Kanye is a producer’s producer, meaning he understands what catalyzes the greatness in his subjects and can bring that to the surface with nothing more than the flip of a sample. Nasir is filled with such relics, punctuated by post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy drums, crashing and echoing like a rain barrel struck by a crowbar in an empty factory. The most sparse arrangements, like “Adam & Eve,” put Nas in familiar territory, giving him ample room to author his own dramas. At this point, that’s really all we can hope for.