Did songs with Chubb Rock
to Chris Brown
Have yet to hear
any heavy weight
make it to this round
On the weekend of July 19, 2019, hip-hop newsfeeds erupted in enough fire emojis to make Zoe Kravitz jealous. No, A$AP Rocky hadn’t been freed from Swedish prison (yet). Escobar season had returned with a vengeance: Queens rapper Nasir Jones had finally delivered Lost Tapes 2, a culmination of what many had assumed to be a gassed-up, empty promise (see: RZA’s The Cure). Yeah…if this was still ‘02, a whole lotta replay buttons would’ve already been sacrificed.
But before we talk about the flame-licked, Chernobyl-level radiation hazard that is every song on this album and what THAT means, you need to understand something about Nas and his career. His first tape, Illmatic, was fortunately never lost. Ten songs of flawless street poetics glowing through sonic canvasses of somber New York boom-bap, Illmatic placed the crown of rap on a nineteen-year-old’s head–Nas was the Simba to Rakim’s Mufasa.
The result was that, no matter what Nas did after his coronation, it was never enough. His impressive sophomore album, It Was Written, got a lukewarm reception upon its release. I AM… showed flashes of brilliance, but 1999’s Nastradamus was a failed effort on the part of Columbia to put Nas’ spaceship in the same lane as Jay-Z’s Lamborghinis. Stillmatic, the stage for the latter’s lyrical massacre, represented a commercial and artistic triumph for Nas. Still, the perceptions of disappointment lingered.
Probably they wanna wait
‘til I’m deceased to honor me
so my product will be
a big commodity
The first Lost Tapes, a short but juicy smorgasbord of B-sides and leaked material from the I AM… and Nastradamus sessions, crafted an alternative narrative of Nas’ career that mollified street criticism and elevated his legend. Nas was still Nasty, Escobar season had never waned, the Golden Child still remained on his throne. It was the commercial side of the game that had been Nas’ downfall, not his performances in the booth. Nonetheless, this was probably a minority view.
The fact remained: for all those who still knew “who the prophet is”, there were just as many ready to mock Nas for being out-rapped by his own bodyguard on “Oochie-Wally”.
This kind of polarized opinion on the Queens legend lingered through the God’s Son era well into the “lost” aughts, cooling into an indifference that muted the volatility of mid-career records like Untitled and Hip-Hop Is Dead. Nasir’s career seemed a living documentary on how people’s ears could be morphed by their expectations. Is it possible that Esco would be considered more a success if Illmatic had never dropped in the first place?! While such an idea is probably preposterous, I put it out there only to draw attention to how Nas has always been put on a crucifix of public opinion by the media gatekeepers, and it makes the one in the “Hate Me Now” video look like a cigarette match in comparison. Yep, I said it!
I’m oblivious to you skeptics
what you hear you ain’t
never hear ‘til I repped it
I chase demons out doors
force ‘em to hear the message
Did you ever see Finding Forrester? Nas reminds me a little of Sean Connery’s character in that movie, William Forrester, a J.D. Salinger-like figure who’s decided to become a recluse after his first collection of stories catapulted him to international literary acclaim. He’s a genius burdened by the weight of what everyone wants him to be, an artist who would remain misunderstood rather than force himself to conform to what people expected. The difference is that Nas never retreated into the project apartments he rhapsodized about; he just kept doing him.
This, I think, explains the overwhelming elation so many of us diehards are feeling right now. It explains why we use EIGHT fire emojis instead of just three to announce our reaction, the sense of “I let the tape rock ‘til my tape popped” pervading the sudden summer mania, the unanimous firestorm of praise and wonderment spreading from one Lost Tapes 2 comment section to the next on the ‘Tube. We “awaited the true savior”, and now we’ve been vindicated. Beneath his newfound Mass Appeal executive cool, I think Nas feels it too.
A quarter-century after the opening “Genesis” loop, the first Escobar epoch has been sealed.
We made choices
to be devoted to
go at those foes
who come at us with
A word about Nas’ artistry on Lost Tapes 2, because it runs deeper than the Mariana Trench. One of the touchstones of his bars is their privileged unpredictability. Most rappers, even the best ones, are compositionally enslaved by rhyme schemes. If you look closely enough, a typical verse is usually the sum of its building blocks. It’s almost like Nas, however, comes from an unknown land with a completely different lingua franca: he enslaves rhyme patterns to his keen poetic genius, brandishing complete freedom in where his inspiration can take him. He’s the master of rhyme.
“Langston Hughes’ predecessor”, in fact, has never disappointed when it comes to achieving a plasticity of language in oral expression, collaging the textures of syntactical brilliance with the clarity of a people’s journalist excoriating the system at a political rally. Few performers in hip-hop have Nas’ ability to speak in such a way as to be universally understood–regardless of age, class, color or education. One is tempted to even say culture. How many street rappers, after all, can switch it up and make a song for children like “I Can”?
I don’t know what to say about Lost Tapes 2, man. Despite the preceding 900 words, my amazement is still in its nascent speechlessness. Since the “Verbal Intercourse” days, we’ve been waiting for another hard-hitting collaboration between the RZA and Nas. Turns out this Lost Tape is a shade purple…”Tanasia” is the kind of exotic concoction of wailing violins, Red Sea piano keys and skull-splitting kicks only the mid-90s Abbot could put together, making you, to paraphrase one commenter, unsure of how to act! Nas puts on the nasty with an edgy, hoarse flow and lines like “We fresh outta the Met gala, express power/Exude the essence of best dressed for the next hour”…velvet rope rap!
Every track seems to overshadow the last. Pete Rock almost steals the show with “The Art of It”, something of a “Straighten It Out” remix bringing the nostalgic 5-bourough vibes full-circle. Verse 3 features the gem “they don’t want an angry Nas on their label”–you can almost see the yellow-plated New York sedans with their windows down in the summer heat. In successive songs, Nas manages to picture himself as a “Queens Wolf” transforming on full moons and then turns around and hunts reptilians with Mac-11s on the Alchemist face-melter “It Never Ends”. These aren’t even rap songs; Nas is out here penning oral mangas.
Stevie Wonder sent me word
that he was in my corner
Blind, still sees the pain
of a young performer
I’m not sure there was a dry eye in the community after “Queensbridge Politics”, a frank and heartfelt eulogy for the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep. The two Queens icons always had a complex relationship–those who remember “Destroy and Rebuild” from Stillmatic know what I’m talking about. Bandana P’s enemy, according to Nas, was a “disease that needs vaccination”. We hear a short history of Queens music icons before the poet admits: “Before you left/I saw you it was all love except/We needed to build more and get things correct”. I’m not sure many of us were emotionally ready to hear Nas wish Prodigy farewell on wax–but there it is.
The only debate called for here is of the recreational variety: which of these producers would you most like to see Nas do a whole album with? RZA…Alchemist…Pete Rock? Pharrell’s contribution, “Vernon Family”, was nothing less than a lush banger. Gone are the days of fans sniping one another about Nas’ beat selection: the tracks are so blindingly hot that most of us are forgetting Pharrell is even on the album! As for the absence of DJ Premiere, my theory is that him and Nas have their own personal Lost Tapes; you can’t convince me those two haven’t done at least five tracks together in the last ten years!
Yes, it’s time for rap critics to switch up their rap; we’re living in a reality in which, well into his mid-40s, Nasir Jones has struck like a thief in the night and delivered an undisputed classic that vaporized the haters and put a big, fat QB chain around the neck of all the WorldStars and Wake-Up Shows of the blogverse. Lost Tapes 2 is the greatest album in Nas’ catalog outside Illmatic. It’s that simple. Stillmatic, for all its inspired exuberance, doesn’t possess the maturity of this one. And the first Lost Tapes…well, it’s been eclipsed–is that even an argument? Not that we really needed him to, but Escobar has outdone himself again. This is the classic we’ve been holding out for all these years. The lost tapes have been excavated and, like any great archaeological discovery, their significance has altered the narrative. The writing’s on the wall…
“…and of course N-A-S are the letters they spell!”