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5 Takeaways From Nas’ New Kanye-Produced Album, Nasir

Nearly two years after claiming he’d finished his album on a song called “Nas Album Done,” Nas’ album is finally actually done. As of Friday afternoon, the record has not yet hit streaming services, but it can be heard via a live stream of its listening party. UPDATE (10:12 p.m. EST): Nasir is now available to stream on Tidal. Nasir was entirely produced by Kanye West, and its album cover (below) is a Mary Ellen Mark photograph originally shot for a 1988 Texas Monthly feature, “The War Zone,” about the tragic state of South Dallas during the crack epidemic. “Almost no one is here for a good reason,” a patrolman told reporter Jim Atkinson for that story. “You got criminals and victims, pushers and users, and some folks caught in between. And us.” Nasir attempts to contextualize this perception of American ghettos, and the way police officers think about the black people in them, as told through Nas’ perspective. The Queens rapper’s first full-length since 2012’s Life Is Good is significantly shorter than its predecessor but still filled with plenty of depth to unpack. As you listen to the seven-track project, here are a few things to know going in.

Pro-Black, Pan-African, Produced by Kanye West

Nas straddles the fine line between wokeness and pseudo-intellectualism on Nasir. Many of these songs span the African diaspora and America’s centuries-old war against blackness. He raps about the “black Egyptian gods,” SWAT being created to suppress the Black Panthers, the Willie Lynch letter being a hoax, the lesser conspiracy that J. Edgar Hoover was black, and the rapper’s (unfounded) claim that “Fox News was started by a black dude.” (Media mogul Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News in 1996, and Roger Ailes oversaw the network’s direction from its inception until his death last year.) The album references Othello, the recent Philly Starbucks incident, Emmett Till, Jet magazine, and Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police shootings. Across its seven tracks, Nasir raises its pro-black, pan-African fist at nearly every turn.

And yet there is something of a disconnect between Nas rapping about how Abraham Lincoln gets too much credit for freeing the slaves on a song produced by Kanye, who said slavery was a choice only a month ago; a Kanye aligned with Trump and Candace Owens, the far-right thinker who has been an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, seems like the wrong person to back Nas’ pro-black sentiments and serve as the Queens rappers sounding board. It feels disingenuous for Kanye to be trading bars with Nas about killer cops when, just a few weeks ago, on Pusha-T’s “What Would Meek Do?,” he proposed that MAGA hats might now give him a pass for driving while black. It isn’t exactly a conflict of interest, but there is definitely some cognitive dissonance.


Obscure Samples and Hip-Hop Staples

Differences aside, Kanye’s production is sharp, continuing in the sample-heavy mode he’s been in as of late. There is a balancing act at play between recognizable hip-hop characters and rare sounds from beyond rap’s borders. “Cops Shot the Kid” samples Slick Rick’s iconic rap parable “Children’s Story,” turning Rick’s raps into the song’s backbone: “The cops shot the kid/I still hear him scream.” Additionally, “Cops Shot the Kid” is introduced by a bit from hip-hop’s favorite comedian, Richard Pryor, at the 1972 Stax Records benefit concert, Wattstax. Elsewhere, Kanye digs deeper into the crates, chopping up Iranian rock and pop and Indian film scores. “Adam & Eve” pitches the piano stabs and guitars of Kourosh Yaghmaei’s “Gole Yakh”; “White Label” repurposes vocals and horns from Shahram Shabpareh’s “Prison Song” for its buoyant, tightly looped chop; and R.D. Burman’s Indian score from the 1977 film Mukti becomes the French-speaking “Bonjour.”


Nas the Anti-Vaxxer Strikes Again

For all of Nas’ supposed cerebral rapping, there is one area in particular where he seems opposed to hearing reason. The Queens MC counts himself a member of the anti-vaxxer movement, i.e. those who don’t believe kids should be vaccinated (with some claiming being forced to vaccinate is a human rights violation). Though subtler than in the past, he characterizes immunization as a painful and largely unwarranted transaction on “Everything.” “I thought you would protect me from this scary place?/Why’d you let them inject me?” he raps from an infant’s perspective. “Who’s gonna know how these side effects is gonna affect me?” These thoughts can be traced back on wax to Stillmatic’s “What Goes Around,” in which he describes prescription medication and infant vaccinations as “poison.” He leaves himself greater wiggle room for interpretation this time around, making the process seem like a necessary evil to indoctrinate a child into a world filled with suffering, but at the very least he’s once again proposing vaccines are harmful.


Notable Nas-isms

  • “Listen vultures, I’ve been shackled by Western culture” (“Everything”)
  • “Crackheads still owe me from ’89 fixes” (“Bonjour”)
  • “I’m buyin’ back the land owned by the slave masters/Where my ancestors lived, just to say a rapper/Made a change; the pants-sagger put plans in action” (“Everything”)
  • “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” (“Simple Things”)
  • “You broke my heart, Fredo/You bring this thing of ours down to a fable” (“Adam & Eve”)

“Pray My Sins Don’t Get Passed to My Children”

Self-titled albums are often personal, and though not quite as personal as Life Is Good, Nasir spends a decent chunk of its running time assessing how Nas is a byproduct of his environment, how his past will affect his future, how the mistakes he’s made laid the groundwork for his successes, and how he hopes his children will be better than he’s been given the opportunity to be. It also grapples with his relationships with the women in his life, making off-handed references to the mothers of his children and celebrities he’s slept with, though mostly speaking of the women he sees as social-climbers who are after his money and status. The only thing he doesn’t address explicitly are allegations recently made by his ex-wife, Kelis, that he’d get black-out drunk and physically abuse her during what she characterized as a violent and chaotic marriage. “They want the end of me ’cause I’m pure,” he raps on “Adam & Eve.” “I’m just good at existing, existed in my truth.” But even in Nas’ most introspective moments on Nasir, Kelis’ truth goes unheard and unanswered.

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