The first thing you realize about Nas’ Nasir album is that it takes three songs too long to get to “Bonjour.”
The song is a pure surprise. The kind of joint that should have been but could not at all have ended up on the Queensbridge rapper’s earlier work. It’s exuberant and lush, a person recoiling through the gravity fall of their success. It’s a song Nas has never done. He’s always been too busy when, at his best, he recalls the sordid and mundane details of his life. When he’s portraying the worlds society longs to ignore. When through that hellscape of love lost and police, of drugs and constant obstacles, we are presented with the innate temerity of humanity. When he is fully engaged in the back-breaking work of breathing life into people we do not wish to know, it is then that Nas is at his finest.
The next thing that screams out at you is that Nas is behaving as though he has run out of things to say and feel. He’s a storyteller; a writer’s writer. He’s Bourdain in the kitchen; Joyce in the bookstore, the spine of Ulysses calling out to you like a siren. A call most of us never heed. There’s a reason it took so long for Illmatic to go platinum. The best albums are sometimes hard to listen to. Complex and revealing, you can feel like an invisible Bilbo Baggins under the thrum of Smaug. But Nasir is not such an album. It is a great rapper stretching before a workout and it is Nas at his most irrelevant over some of the prettiest beats of his career.
He’s Bourdain in the kitchen; Joyce in the bookstore, the spine of Ulysses calling out to you like a siren. A call most of us never heed.
He reverts to preacher Nas here and he is not a proselytizer. He is a watcher, silent and looking; recording. And there are many happenings in this great big world for Nasir Jones to talk about. Maybe he could mention, if he’s into it, you know, that somehow under the radar the Kelis interview that implicates him in noxious shame. We get nary a mention of the flame he doused, his infidelity and alcoholism spilling ink all over their relationship. We get nothing of the catharsis of 4:44. Of having Jigga finally admit to everyone that, yes, he is an asshole. Because, yes, Nas is an asshole. This is something we all must come to accept. He is a valiant, Pan-Africanist (so he says), top five dead-or-alive asshole. Because, as a man, you come to understand that you are who you love and who you destroy. At least, anyway, you come to think about it. To wrestle with it. Nas does no such wrestling on Nasir. Instead, even on the beautiful-ass “Bonjour,” we are left to wrestle with Nas feeling bad on vacation.
So Nas may love ideas about Black kings and queens, of Kush and Kemet, but he is also a signature example of what happens when that idea runs amok. When we are soaked in the shambles of respectability, of act-right, and, suddenly, his and our weaknesses appear. Because you cannot be a king without a queen in that world, and you do not treat a queen the way Nas treated Kelis. So now that we are confronted with how the man loves we are left with some semblance of the truth.
To be fair, the Nas I’d imagined was probably never real. No great artist is real in that way. Not after you create works like Ilmatic or It Was Written, Stillmatic or God’s Son. Not after Lost Tapes, where he rapped so well, it felt like you could hear your soul wishing your boy bon voyage. Where it felt like he, by his damn lonesome, was keeping a New York tongue alive that, too, never existed in the way I’d imagined. But such was the work of Nasir Jones. His medley of imagination allowing you a sneak peek, a keyhole view into the mutterings of the tough kids who had to make terrible choices to survive. There is drama in that, and there is my own shame. The shame of separating ideas from people; of moving fantasy into reality.
And that is the fulcrum of New York. Machismo was always the fantasy. The use and discard of women, the drugs, the money, the sex, all of that was the make-believe. The reality was those who wanted out. Those who couldn’t wait to leave that shimmering Harlem sky, pulsating like a cathedral. That Queens that, when you looked out over it on a rooftop, drunk and happy in the summer, looked pink and white and dripped with an aching beauty. Nas was once one of those people, the ones who could see the beauty in the chaos. Yet our compassionate watcher will have to dig a little deeper than Nasir, even if it features some of the most enjoyable production of his legendary career.