Don’t Let Nas’ New Single Fool You Again — He Still Sucks

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)
Disappointment: 10
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.)

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