Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Nas Still Reigns // "Nasir" Album Review

The first album from Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones--"Illmatic"-- was released on my 16th birthday, in 1994, and it remains my favourite hip hop album of all times. In fact, Nas remains my favourite rapper of all times. As far as I'm concerned, he'll always reign in that genre of music because of who he was to me growing up, and who he continues to be in the industry. An intellectual, yet humble, yet powerful musical soul.

Yesterday the hip hop community lost two of its young contributors: Miami's XXXTentacion and Pittsburgh's Jimmy Wapo. My dedication to keeping up with hip hop has waned over the years so I'm unfamiliar with the music of the 20 and 21 year olds, respectively. Regardless, I hate to see the words "rapper killed" or "rapper shot" and know that it automatically casts negativity and doubt throughout the industry. Paranoia. Social unrest. Internal evaluation.

Hardly an expert in the genre and barely a seasoned purveyor of hip hop lyrics, I am a complete fan of music as a whole and I can always appreciate sounds that make me feel something. Now while I issued a self-imposed Kanye West boycott the other day (due to his Trump foolishness), I didn't mind taking in this Kanye-produced masterpiece. And it definitely made me feel something. Kanye is good again in my world, on a musical genius pass, and I've recommitted myself to listening to more hip hop on a daily basis. It felt that good!

I wish I could have heard this album for the first time in New York, underneath the Queensboro Bridge on June 14 with Nas and the gang. It was the perfect setting for these majestic choral arrangements and classic Nas grooves. And as much as I want to bun out Kanye indefinitely, I think the tracks would have sang out beautifully that night during the outdoor release...even with him and Kim around.

It's the 11th studio album from Nas, and the reviews I've read thus far have been mixed. Some said it fell flat, and others condemned it for being a part of the Kanye Show. As much as I'm a fan of Nas, I admittedly haven't "loved" every one of his albums thus far. Aside from "Illmatic," I've also deeply appreciated "It Was Written" in 1996, and "Stillmatic" in 2001. I really, really loved what he did partnering up with The Firm in 1997 for their self-titled album, and "God's Son" in 2002 was another good one. I recall being slightly disappointed with "Hip Hop is Dead" in 2006, and was too caught up in the deep south hip hop at the time to stay closely connected to Nas.

Now, 24 years after I first fell in love with this legendary lyricist, I feel like "Nasir" is an album that I can ride with in the car, and make an effort to enjoy in a way that I haven't with new Nas music...in years. I'm relieved! I'm happy. It feels like home...like I can again fall into a hip hop trance from an artist that I respect, and know well.

TRACK ONE - NOT FOR RADIO // The deep choral intro is beautiful and majestic, and the history lessons and bold declarations that "they're scared of us" are fitting, coming from an artist who has lived life through various tax brackets, and has the age and financial wisdom to speak about it confidently. It is the wisdom that points out how fortunate he is that God gave him/"us" compassion and forgiveness, and he articulates this instead of bashing his country's forefathers. "F--- your proclamation" was recognition enough. Always great to hear Diddy, keeping it cool.

TRACK TWO - COPS SHOT THE KID // It's repeated indefinitely on a Slick Rick sample..."the cops shot the kid". It's timely, and necessary. I look forward to a poignant video and widespread circulation of these lyrics and most importantly, this important cultural message. Accountability. I'm here for it.

TRACK THREE - WHITE LABEL // What I love about Nas, and also Kanye, is their love for instrumentation. The horns are awesome in this song and highlights Nas' personal history with his jazz musician father, Olu Dara. The song is otherwise steadily mellow, but lyrically strong as can be expected. My favourite line is Nas noting that he knows the consumer behaviour. He has, in essence, created the culture.

TRACK FOUR - BONJOUR // Beautiful contributions from Tony Williams on this track. Of all the songs, this is where Nas gets the most personal speaking metaphorically about women/his ex-girlfriends and experiences, and projecting the best for the growth of his children. His advice is strong with recommendations and warnings.

TRACK FIVE - EVERYTHING // So far, this is my favourite track on the album. It's hauntingly beautiful, and reminds me of the best of both Kanye and Nas, musically. The messages of acceptance and inclusion are most memorable, and the pleading to young black boys not to cry (along with Kanye expressing that if he could change anything, he'd change EVERYTHING) remind us that regardless of the success of these gentlemen (including The Dream, who is featured) that times still get rough. Lyrics I love: "Know your worth, and speak your truth. Let them come to you." and "Inclusion is a hell of a drug."

TRACK SIX - ADAM AND EVE // I know Nas is in the midst of some drama and accusations with his ex. I can appreciate that he didn't drag his thoughts too deeply into the album, and prefers that his private life remains private. I'm definitely not condoning any of the allegations, but I also can't afford to be distracted by the personal life of EVERY artist because let's face it: they've all done some shit. Some made it to TMZ...some never will. So while he raps about Adam and Eve, it's a classic-sounding Nas flow over a beautiful old untuned piano loop. This may be as intense an explanation of his domestic affairs as we'll ever get from Nas, and I'll leave the dissection up to those who will surely read beyond the chorus of Adam and Eve not falling too far from the apple tree. This song also features The Dream.

TRACK SEVEN - SIMPLE THINGS // He concludes the album with a bit of bragging, but well deserved acclaim. Like he says, he drops lines that "prestigious schools read to their students," and the slow jam vibe and easy bounce are a fitting end to this short project. A simple track with a simple message: he's worked hard, he'll teach his children the importance of his journey, and he's already proven to the world that he's a legend of his craft.

I'm happy to still be a hip hop fan, but truth be told: the last decade has been sticky. As a result, I've fallen slightly out of touch with the Migos and Post Malone era. What I love about getting "old" as a music lover is that the artists I grew up with are also getting old...but are still remaining relevant. It's reassuring to know that Nas, Jay, Puffy, and Ye are also getting greys, and getting wise. It's even more reassuring to know that they're still ascending, they're still keeping up, setting trends, and that they're able to bring me (an occasional hip hop skeptic) willingly back into the scene.

I'll patiently wait for his tour to be announced, and will be one of the first to purchase tickets for this iteration of his legacy. Nasir. This album will have a permanent place in my musical rotation: it's officially Escobar Season again!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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