Nas, Nasir & What We Expect from Aging Artists of the Gangsta Rap Era

 Evan Dale // Jun 19, 2018 

There is no metric with which to measure the weight of a Nas project in 2018, so we’ll simply refer to Nasir as important, though it is so much less than that. I didn’t like the album through the first five tracks of my first listen through. Something about the dated rap vocabulary, a stumbling, out-of-practice delivery, and the distinctively aged and predictable descriptions of drug dealing, gangster posturing, socioeconomic underrepresentation, misogynistic depictions of women, and boring re-readings of the failures of politics rubbed me the wrong way. It’s 2018, and for whatever reason – whether it be the internet’s ability to shorten our attention spans, or simply the state of artistic expression – statements through music, for the good or the bad, are better made impressionistically and repetitively in ways that the circus surrounding This Is America has brought to the table and forced the world to listen.


But then, halfway through everything – Nasir’s cornerstone marathon piece, something clicked. I saw much more clearly the album from the lens by which it was meant to be seen. It’s been a while since I had last listened to a relic of the Gansta Rap Era, and per such passed time, my expectations on a modern hip-hop album, especially another addition to the Kanye West Wyoming construct, were skewed. Don’t get me wrong, by Kanye’s guiding hand, Nasir is undoubtedly a modern-sounding project albeit built of respectably aged foundations, but Nas does everything in his power to refute that fact. 


He simply sounds outdated. And why shouldn’t he? 


As the once lyrically-unparalleled Nas unapologetically drops bar after bar within the same overthought, under-explained frame of mind that has defined his entire career – one that in the internet era paints him as an insecure, lazily-written, absurd conspiracy theorist divulging what he sees as the untold secrets of corporate greed and media misrepresentation, he recklessly blends into the fold unbalanced brags on his expertise in making money in less-than-legal ways, and his even further expertise in spending that money. Confusion and boredom quickly overtake the album’s course and shine a light into the face of nearly two decades of failings to recreate the excitement surrounding his early career. 


Nas has been a millionaire, a successful businessman, and a family man (on and off) for something like two decades – why have his position and thematic exploration literally never deterred? But then again, has his music in general – especially thematically, ever really changed? Better yet, has anyone’s? 


We live in an era when, for the first time, a quickly-aging generation of hip-hop’s past is releasing music at a consistent rate, and we’re able to see just how that happens. Dr. Dre’s Compton shined brightest when Anderson .Paak had the microphone; Jay-Z struggles with modernity and relevance unless being propped by the crutch of Beyoncé; Snoop Dogg no longer spends his energy making relevant music, but instead uses his archaic platform to judge the modern scene; even Eminem has been quintessentially stale since Encore. But to their credit, all of these artists and their music of a bygone era have matured socially and thematically, working within the bounds of modernity and utilizing their platforms to work for societal and cultural improvement in some sense or another.


It should be strange for any successful rapper to speak through their music in ways that relay the message that they are still somehow involved in their pre-fame lives. But something about a 44-year-old rapper doing so in comparison with their 20-year-old self understandably loses a certain amount of flavor, angst, relatability, and truth. Yet, Eminem and his extremely political recent exploits aside, why do old rappers of the Gangsta Rap Era still pretend to be so … gangsta? Furthermore, what about a rapper who has long stood publicly for so much more than money, women, and fame? Should their music not see a shift in maturity and social responsibility even as they age and go through changes themselves?


Nas has always attempted to stand and continues to do so for a wide array of positivity and activism in this world, and he has never refrained from making the world aware of his do-goodedness from the platform of his most powerful tool – music. From the moment his classic debut, Illmatic hit the scene and brought with it what was then a refreshingly forward and lyrically-explorative sound, to the moment he released his feel-good motivational anthem, I Can, the entire world vaguely knew what he supported – or what he was at least pretending to support. It always seemed like Nas was the prophetical, all-intelligent mind that would lead the world, through hip-hop’s grasp, to a better, more educated place. But now that we have search engines, his tendency to blurt out easily disprovable theories for the sake of sounding especially woke is just one of the blatant failings his music faces when held underneath a modern light. 


In a modern scene where many rappers, whether lovable positivists or lyrically-endowed speakers for the world’s underrepresented communities have, in Nas’ footsteps, built the ability to make grand sociocultural impacts and political statements with their music, Nasir removes Nas from the modern prophetic table populated by artists like J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar, and places the 44-year-old rapper in the company of B.o.B. and his pursuits to prove the world flat.


Two-and-a-half decades have passed since Illmatic, and the prolific Queens wordsmith finds himself not only actively continuing to make music that half-heartedly challenges our sociopolitical constructs and plays the part of being for the greater good of humanity, but is also being openly accused of physical and emotional abuse towards both his ex-wife and his daughter’s mother. It would seem that Nas is and has probably always been, completely full of shit. Maybe a better description is that he has always been, at varying degrees, somewhat full of shit, and through a stubborn inability to change with the world, is now outing himself. 


Towards his defense, it’s indisputable that Nas is a spokesperson and mentor for P'Tones Records – a non-profit after school music program – just one of his well-known charitable pursuits, while at this point the abuse claims made against Nas are in fact disputable. But, the little effort he has put forth to either denounce those claims or claim responsibility for their validity doesn’t shed a positive light on his character or the possibility of his innocence. 


If there is one thing that Nas is surely guilty of, it’s aging poorly. With Nasir, he had the chance to re-establish his relevance musically, socially, culturally, theoretically, but instead, did everything in his power to travel back to 1994 in an attempt to revel in his long-faded glory. Like nearly all relics – whether artists or fans – of the Gangsta Rap Era, it would seem that Nas has no interest in the future of hip-hop, only its past; no interest in the future of the world, only its past. But the world has changed, Nas has gotten old, and even weighed against his former self, Nasiris nothing but a shadow where could have stood a strong and influential force on the future of music and its role in the betterment of society. 


So, as artists of the Gansta Rap Era age, how does their music hold up? Social progression certainly dictates that though it will forever remain important in the establishment of modern music, it doesn’t align with standards of social responsibility. But, that’s okay. You cannot blame the past for not aligning with the present.


But, as artists of the Gangsta Rap Era age, what should we expect from them and their modern music? The simple answer would be that we expect more. We expect artists to continue pushing the boundaries of musicality and not to become comfortable in the past simply because they built it. We expect artists to continue standing for current and legitimate social progression the way they once did, instead of existing within the bounds of whatever it is they fought for decades ago. We expect artists to grow and mature and for their music to reflect that growth and maturity. We expect truth and honesty. We expect music to be made through a modern lens.  


We expect all of these things because when a 44-year-old rapper steps in the ring with his 20-year-old self instead of becoming a coach and a role model for the future generations, humiliation is the only result, and projects like Nasir which draw a lot of attention but yield no positive real results, are complete wastes of time and painful self-defamations of character.