Grown-man hip-hop continues to arrive in fits and spurts. Nas is a mid-forties hip-hop elder statesman, a parent, a multimillionaire who’s been rich longer than he was poor. Elite adult MCs like him have gotta push the genre in new directions and talk about the wisdom and the fears of a grown man rather than just flexing the carefreeness of the kids we were two decades ago.
Nas’s 11th studio album is titled with his real name, Nasir, suggesting the real Nas is coming, a lack of artifice is ahead. It’s a more soulful-sounding album, as if producer Kanye West leaned back toward the soul sounds he first became known for, as opposed to the moody, brooding electronic beats that pervades the awesome Kids See Ghosts or Yeezus. And on Nasir, Nas is more thoughtful, indicating what we’d expect from grown hip-hop. The album begins with “Not for the Radio” and lines where Nas links himself to African Gods, and ends with a sweet and philosophical song called “Simple Things” whose last line is a prayer for his children—“I just want my kids to have the same peace I’m blessed with.” That’s what every parent wants, and lines like that fulfill what forty-something hip-hop fans who are parents should get to hear: music that takes into account the fullness of our lives, that takes into account who the MC really is.
He really is the deep reader and iconoclastic thinker who seized on facts like Willie Lynch was a myth and Reagan had Alzheimer’s. This bit of “Not for the Radio” seems like a list of conspiracy theories he believes in but most of this is true or could be—it’s widely rumored (but unproven) that J. Edgar Hoover was secretly Black.
That said, Fox News was not started by a Black man but what he’s really doing in this bit is breaking down your relationship to the big truths we’ve had handed down by our leaders. The core concept in this list is that President Lincoln doesn’t really deserve to take responsibility for freeing the slaves. It’s not that he really didn’t want to, which he didn’t, but that it happened because of grassroots pressure. He’s saying that we have the ability to push government to be what we need it to be. We have the power to change our world. It’s a neat rebuke to Kanye siding with the Oppressor in Chief.
Emotionally expansive songs like “Simple Things” and “Adam & Eve” feel like grown-man hip-hop. Adam, to me, has the album’s best verse:
The ghosts of gangsters dance / Chinchillas shake on the hanger, the force of this banger / Yeah, my language advance, my cadence amazin’ / The voice triggers somethin’ / What is this conundrum? / The clouds scurry, your spirit rumble, a boyish smile / Still puff the loud, it’s nothin’ less than a quarter pound / Savage narrative, every verse that I write bursts light.
When Nas talks about having fun in France, that feels like grown hip-hop to me. So do lines that embrace the fullness of his life like this from “I Can’t Explain”: “lobster eater, when I fast I see Elijah’s features,” meaning Elijah Muhammad, a central figure in the history of the Nation of Islam. Wisdom like “inclusion is a hell of a drug” on “Everything.” I appreciate him on that song linking the Starbucks arrestees and Rosa Parks, as both were famously barred from peacefully existing in spaces where they should’ve been welcome. I always appreciate a good song that’s critical of policing with a haunting hook. He paints cops as part of the furniture of the hood: “slap-boxing in the street / crack a hydrant in the heat / cop cars on the creep.” They sound like they’re sneaking up to do a drive by. But Nas here seems to tell us about the tragic state of modern policing without demanding change. In the prior song, “Not for the Radio,” he mentions Lincoln and says we have the power to change government but here he doesn’t seem to imagine he has the same power to demand and effectuate change of this arm of government.
The bit many will talk about is Nas on his beat choices in “Simple Things”:
Never sold a record for the beat, it’s my verses they purchase / Without production, I’m worthless / But I’m more than the surface / Want me to sound like every song on the Top 40?
He’s saying his music is all about the lyrics. I’ve talked to Nas about this before. He knows that his beat-picking is his fans’ biggest critique of him but he doesn’t always pick the obvious hot beats because he doesn’t want to make it too easy for himself. He wants it to be a challenge. Plus he never wanted to be a pop star. He was always about being a great MC. He chooses beats that keep the focus on his lyrics and puts the pressure on him rather than leaning on the fruits of his producers.
The production on this is strong even as they avoided banger beats. The album is often melancholy, kinda like 808s, and never easy pop. My favorite song is “I Can’t Explain,” a single-verse story reinforcing the core message of most hip-hop songs: I’m the man. It’s a short bio with a soul sample. Nas will probably regret including, in that song a mention of aggressive sexual behavior—“neck choker, in her mouth spitter, Blouse ripper, ass gripper”—now that his ex-wife, Kelis, is alleging that he physically abused her.
Many have complained about how short this is. I have no problem with short art. Kanye’s recent series of seven-song, 25-minute albums that have a sonic cohesiveness is a good idea for artists. Make short, strong albums where you believe in every song and spend less time and money in the studio so you can spend more time and money touring. Albums are like loss leaders now. Why not make short ones? You won’t be thinking about how short these albums were when you plunk down $200 to see the Kanye/Nas/Pusha/Cudi/Teyana tour this fall.
Alas, the biggest problem with Nasir is Kanye the MC. This is where the word vomit of MAGA Kanye prevents me from really hearing him. I’m upset with him for supporting people and ideas that are dangerous for and hostile to Black people. Somehow on Kids See Ghosts, a moody, emotional, out-there trip that I love, I don’t find myself thinking about how upset I am with Kanye. I can get into the otherworldliness of the music. But this time I can’t block out MAGA Kanye because he won’t let me.
He starts it by all but quoting NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on “Cops.” Kanye says “‘money is bein’ made when a mom cries,” a clear echo of Loesch saying “crying white mothers are ratings gold” as a way of critiquing the media’s coverage of the families of gun-violence victims. Kanye referencing Loesch reminds me how often he’s taking from right-wing kooks to form his opinions. I can barely hear the rest of the verse. So on “Everything,” when Kanye sings “don’t think the same as everyone else,” it doesn’t sound like a plea to liberation but like the black conservative’s constant whine. This is the problem with being so public about your ideas as an artist: You risk creating a distraction from your art.