Nas is currently basking in a wave of critical goodwill on the basis of his new single “The Don” (out today, April 3 via Def Jam). Produced by the recently deceased Heavy D, the raw and rambunctious song has been endorsed by rap radio’s foremost Instagram expert, Funkmaster Flex, and has stoked anticipation for his soon-coming tenth solo album, Life Is Good. Don’t be fooled! This cruel trick of expectation is one Nas has been playing on the public since he followed up his hallowed debut, Illmatic, with the altogether more commercially cut and patchy It Was Written.
Historically, Nasir’s schtick goes like this: He drops a very promising first single that’s usually wrought from the same sort of sterling East Coast production that held down his debut album and features him rapping like he’s still in awe of his art. (In short: He sounds like he can actually be assed.) Then he follows it up with an album that underwhelms on the basis of his incessant tendency to fall back on tame and dispirited production (often by the Trackmasters) and lyrics that attempt to take a moral high ground while most often being content to rap about the same fancy shoes and money stacks as the rappers he’s looking to distance himself from. Then for good measure, canny ol’ Nas coats the whole shebang in some naïve concept or publicity stunt! Think we’re being overly cynical? Well, take a trawl through Nas’s vault of disappointment — including a heads-up on the eight promising early singles that would make a damn potent mixtape if you forget that the rest of his body of work exists.
Promising single: “If I Ruled The World” feat. Lauryn Hill
Album: It Was Written (1996)
Disappointment factor: 4
After basking in the critical acclaim of Illmatic, Nas sought to up his commercial clout by launching album number two with a song inspired by Kurtis Blow’s old school track of the same name. Bringing in Lauryn Hill (who was then on the cusp of the Fugees’ break-out era) for chorus duties kept things serviceable for the radio while still ensuring he had the ear of the streets; Nas’s raps on the song were uplifting without spilling over into the realm of the cheesy. But while the album that followed bristled with a couple of songs firmly in the Illmatic lineage, not least the DJ Premier-produced “I Gave You Power” and the Havoc-helmed “Live N*gga Rap.” It also announced the birth of the Nas who’d prefer to shoot for poppier climes than pen poetry — complete with the start of a fake Mafioso infatuation that would climax limply with The Firm.
Promising single: “Nas Is Like”
Album: I Am (1999)
Disappointment factor: 8
With rap in thrall with the jigged-up lifestyle, “Nas Is Like” suggested that the Queensbridge kid was about to mark a return to his New York roots and deliver an album to sober up the scene. The resulting I Am was not that project. Blighted by Nas’s moronic faith in the Trackmasters production unit, the sound of the set was uneven, while Nas’s lyrics suggested he still wasn’t sure whether he was writing from his heart or joining in the popular fun of bragging about brand names and accumulating cash. For cheap kicks, the clip for second single “Hate Me Now” courted controversy after Puff Daddy decided that he didn’t want to be portrayed crucified on a cross in the video after all. If Nas had relied on something of a critical shield up until now, this was the point in his career where things started to unravel.
(Not exactly) promising single: “Nastradamus”
Album: Nastradamus (1999)
With the new millennium approaching and rappers faithfully following Busta Rhymes’s belief that the world was about to blow up into a million brilliant shards, Nas sought to tap into people’s paranoia by pitching himself as something of a superior soothsayer type. (Guess which book he got for Christmas that year!) Unfortunately, he lacked the foresight to actually produce an album befitting its title, instead churning out a flaccid and clichéd set of songs, including a title track with a twee hook sung by the boy Esco himself. And while the album included the introspective, laid-back “Project Windows,” it was a rare gem on a set that (again) saw Nas largely infatuated with metaphorically wearing pimp’s gators and talking about Gucci heels. (The inverse kicker: Nastradamus did prove that the more critically panned a new Nas album is, the more likely it is to go platinum.)
Promising single : “Got UR Self A…”
Album: Stillmatic (2001)
Well, it was better than Nastradamus. Stillmatic, while addressing his beef with Jay-Z, is more an also-ran album than anything approaching vintage status. While a bunch of online rap nerds would like to laud “One Mic” as a great addition to the idea of Nas as rapper superior, it also samples Phil Collins and works better as words cut-and-pasted on a message board than anything to actually listen to. “Got UR Self A…,” however, is an underrated and plucky calling card that samples from the Sopranos theme (by Alabama 3) and showcases Nas sounding like he’s actually putting some effort into his rapping. The album also features some slick concepts like “Rewind” (wherein the boy Nas tells a story in reverse) and the musings on maturity of “2nd Childhood” — although tellingly both tap into his Illmatic production Rolodex, being crafted by Large Professor and DJ Premier respectively. Unfortunately, Stillmatic also houses “Ether,” his response to Jay-Z’s emasculating “Takeover” and perhaps one of the most sonically flaccid dis songs ever.
Promising single: “Made You Look”
Album: God’s Son (2002)
Disappointment factor: 8
Fiyah! “Made You Look” is as powerful, persuasive and fiery a song as the modern version of Nas seems capable of producing: Over one of hip-hop’s most vintage of break-beats (“Apache”), he spits with vigor and heart and even throws in a reference to golden era club spot the Rooftop. It was a song to appeal to both those still clinging to the now slender hope he’d again make something as relevant as Illmatic and those who just wanted a rowdy song to get amped to. Alas, “Made You Look” also set something of a template for Nas’s trick of disappointment, with the album that followed typified by the choice of drafting in Eminem for production (for all his talents as a rapper, Em’s beat-making ear veers on the cloth-covered side), a ropey beyond-the-grave collaboration with 2Pac (“Thugz Mansion (N.Y.)”), and “I Can,” a song nauseatingly sickly-sweet in its attempted positivity. At least drama hounds could take solace in “The Last Real N*gga Alive,” which attempted to connect the dots between various intermingled feuds concerning Biggie, Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas himself.
Promising single: “Thief’s Theme”
Album: Street’s Disciple (2004)
Disappointment factor: 7
The good: Salaam Remi repeats his “Made You Look” trick by blessing Nas with the brooding, back-alley anthem “Thief’s Theme.” His bluesy collaboration with his dad, trumpet player Olu Dara, wasn’t too bad either, even if the ripostes between the two generations did come off as cornball. But then there’s the bad: It’s a double album, it features Quan (one of the most useless of the Nas-enabled weed-haulers to ever get a spot on a song), and as it unravels you suspect Nas is doing little more than going through the motions of using up pre-booked studio time. If Illmatic charmed in part due to its svelte form, it was the belatedness that sank Street’s Disciple .
Promising single: “Black Republican” feat. Jay-Z
Album: Hip-Hop Is Dead (2006)
Disappointment factor: 8
Hip-Hop Is Dead was a titular publicity stunt more than a body of work. Irked that he didn’t like the prevailing sound and, ahem, values of the hip-hop music he was hearing, Nas took umbrage at what seemed to largely be the popular southern rappers of the day. (Young Jeezy went on a bit of a rant in response.) This was despite Nas himself having regurgitated a bunch of materialistic tosh during his post-Illmatic career. But anyway! While the project’s Will.i.am title track sounds a little too close to hip-hop karaoke – not least because Nas never really comes off like he’s convinced of his own vitriol – his team up with former foe Jay-Z, “Black Republican,” is dramatic and powerful. “I feel like a black militant taking over the government/ Can’t turn my back on the ’hood — too much love for them/ Can’t clean my act up for good — too much thug in him,” opens Nas for his verse over the brooding beat. But it’s a rare moment of vigor in a set that resonates only like Nas getting old and moaning about those young’uns messing up rap. (Nostalgia ultra blast: “Where Are They Now,” which saw Nas reminiscing over some of his much missed favorite rap artists.)
Promising (canned) single: “Be A N*gger Too”
Album: Untitled (2008)
Disappointment factor: 10
Because his decision to call his last album Hip-Hop Is Dead was such a virtuous and resounding success, Nas declared that he was calling solo album number nine N*gger. The move was supposed to be provocative and presumably something to inspire wider debate on the use and abuse of the n-word, but it came off like a cheap publicity shot. His cause wasn’t helped by the album including naive songs like “Sly Fox,” Nas’s answer record to his ridiculous beef with right-wing rabble-rouser Bill O’Reilly. (Note at rappers ranting at O’Reilly: He wants you to do that! Stop gobbling down the bait!) Underscoring the wet squid status of the album that was Untitled, its intended first single, “Be A N*gger Too,” was pulled from the release schedule. A shame, as hip-hop would have welcomed a 10-track, totally on-topic concept album from Nas — but in the end he bowed to someone in a suit working somewhere up at Corporate America who politely asked him to change the title. Cash rules, eh?