Note: This review is based on last night’s livestream of Nasir, which hasn’t been officially released at the time of publication. You can watch the stream below.
Old rappers need looking after. There were once days when Nas rolled out of bed mumbling beautiful multisyllabic couplets to himself, but few folks are as sharp at 44 as they are at 18, and Esco apparently now strains to find the inspiration to cut full-lengths. His last album, Life Is Good, was released six years ago. His 2016 single with DJ Khaled, literally called “Nas Album Done,” gestured toward a record that was either shelved or never actually completed. Nas has been taking his time, the full measure of things, and a lot of vacations.
He’s smart to have picked Kanye West to steward Nasir into being. Perhaps he turned to his contemporaries—listened to JAY-Z’s graceful, No I.D.-helmed 4:44, took note of Ghostface’s late-career spiral into batshit indulgence, and made a wise choice. As brayingly selfish as Ye can be, he’s always been a generous and thoughtful producer who elevates the strengths of his collaborators. On Nasir, he’s backed Nas’ powerfully grainy voice mostly with soul samples and resonant drums, modern updates of the stuff Large Professor and Salaam Remi have fed him over the years.
Kanye has endearingly disclosed that he feels like a teenager, being given the opportunity to make an album’s worth of beats for the guy who wrote Illmatic, and when he and Nas connect, it’s seismic in a way Ye probably fantasized about back when he was a young nobody. “Adam & Eve” is all gravitas, Nas’ booming opening lines—“The ghetto Othello, the moor / Oh my god, they speak venomous on the boy”—meeting Kanye’s piano line with a right cross. There is something to Nas’ slightly timeworn delivery, the grooves it has traced in the mind over the years, that’s enduringly robust, particularly when he’s performing the extremely Nas-like maneuver of blending the Shakespearean and the idiomatic. He’s at his best on Nasir when draped in lavishly triumphant production, rapping over fat, dusty horn stabs on “White Label” about the Met Gala and tuna salad, perched on gothic parapets on “Not For Radio” boasting “Mount Kilimanjaro bone marrow.”
As ever, Nas’ politics swerve freely between aggravating ignorance (a clumsy, protracted anti-vaxxer riff on “Everything”) and baffling non sequitur (“Fox News was started by a black dude”), but “Cops Shot The Kid” is a moment of clarity. Over a repeating sample of Slick Rick rapping the track’s title, Nas is not only correct—“White kids are brought in alive / Black kids get hit with like five”—but at home over the spare loop and filled with a righteous verve that awakens his gift for a striking image: a fire hydrant bursting in the middle of a late-night scuffle.
For a 26-minute effort, Nasir has too much slack. “Bonjour” is a take on late-’90s jiggy rap that Nas was ill-suited for back when he was living through Puff Daddy’s heyday, and it’s redeemed only by Nas charmingly putting some extra Poupon on his pronunciation of “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” “Everything” is an empty empowerment ballad on which Kanye mewls that if he could change anything, he would change, well, everything.
The fact that there’s filler on what’s basically an EP confirms that Nasir is not a definitive statement from an aging master, but rather an experiment. It’s an admirer-cum-godhead working with one of his idols and the most mercurial rapper of his generation taking a few snapshots of where he’s at in relation to both his own talent and the rest of the world. On “Everything,” Nas makes a passing reference to the two black men who were wrongfully arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks in mid-April, signaling that this is a work of the moment, more fired off than deeply considered. On the whole, Nasir benefits from sacrificing heft for immediacy. The record-closer is called “Simple Things,” and though it begins with a meditation on age and eternity, its wistful bounce fades out with Nas, sounding at peace and almost distracted, wishing success and wealth on his children, as if relenting: Sure, the big questions linger, but basking in what’s pleasant can be sustaining. If not forever, then for a while.