It’s a shame to see Nas continue to suffer from an issue going back two decades. This isn’t a one-off problem, it’s part of the Nas package – you’ll get that incomparable voice, occasional mastery of his craft, but more often than not, the music will be bang average. “The Lost Tapes 2” is more disheartening to Nas fans because the first “The Lost Tapes” was so damn good – expectations were rightfully high for the sequel. 2012’s “Life Is Good” was a genuine return to form, showcasing Nas at his wisest and while 2018’s “NASIR” wasn’t without flaws, we at least had the excuses of a quick turnaround and Kanye’s unpredictability to fall back on. The optimists among us expected to be blessed with leftovers that were better than the supposed main courses we’d been dished up. The cold, hard truth is that the first “The Lost Tapes” gave us false hope during a period where “Stillmatic” and “God’s Son” had put him back in fans’ good books. All the sequel does is confirm what we already knew – Nas sounds his best, and most natural, over the type of production we’ve been crying out for. For years.
The mixed reception to “Al Jarreau of Rap” is classic Nas. Lifelong fans still convinced he’s capable of another “Illmatic”, or even an “It Was Written” yearn for that lyrical, insightful yet knowingly gifted emcee from humble beginnings. Unlike 2 Live Crew, Nas is nasty when he wants to be. An ode to jazz veteran Al Jarreau, who passed away in 2017 (so this must be a recent track), it’s an odd, almost self-indulgent decision on a record that’s inherently designed to be for the fans.
Nas and RZA may have combined to lethal effect on 1995’s “Verbal Intercourse”, and to a lesser degree on 2000’s “Let My N****s Live”, but the two collaborations here, unfortunately, fall short. The beat on “Tanasia” is standard throwaway Wu-Tang fare, albeit drowned out by Nas’ vocals and a cringe-worthy hook. The concept works but lacks the catchiness of Aceyalone’s “Annalillia” or the accessibility of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” – instead we’re treated to an overbearing ode to Asian women with a reminder that Africa was a part of Asia.
Many of the tracks that have Nas addressing the women in his life conveniently overlook the domestic abuse allegations ex-wife Kelis has shared. While Nas chose to address these in social-media posts, it’s a shame such a hot topic is absent from his music – it’s precisely the type of hidden gem fans would be interested in hearing about. When Nas drops knowledge, more often than not it’s delivered eloquently and instilled with a commanding presence. Sometimes though, the historical references which would previously be nonchalantly woven into a verse, are now batted at the listener, not too dissimilar to latter-day KRS-One. “War Against Love” is one such example, but whilst that may be a personal grievance with some of Nas’ rhymes, it’s often the production and weak hooks that confirm why these tracks were left on the cutting room floor, or whatever the modern-day equivalent is (a hard-drive backup perhaps?).
While it’s easy to poke at flaws in a compilation of either unfinished or simply unchosen songs, there are some moments that earn repeated listens. “No Bad Energy” is typical modern Nas, promoting positivity in that grown-man rap approach he delivered so acutely on 2012’s “Life Is Good”. Queensbridge remains close to Nas’ heart, and Pharrell Williams comes through on “Vernon Family”:
Even better is “Queensbridge Politics”, despite its short length lending it an interlude-like feel. Pete Rock clearly has better beats in his archive, but there’s a magic to Nas’ words when he’s backed up by good old fashioned kicks and snares. Once Skyzoo has finished his “Retropolitan” album with the Chocolate Boy Wonder, it would be great to get Nas back in the studio with Mt. Vernon’s best. And it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, given this is a recent track – Nas mentions the passing of Prodigy:
“Then came the Juice Crew and the who’s who
G Rap, Rakim and Kane, beats made in the Q-U
I was probably playing with .32s in the lobby
It’s QueensBridge over everything and everybody
I wish the book never came out
And everything got straightened out
Before you left, I saw you, it was all love
Except we needed to build more and get things correct
Now I gotta accept it, cause there’s honor in death
Wish you was here with us P”
The best song, however, isn’t even a song. “Lost Freestyle” is Nas in glorious free-flow, atop a Statik Selektah instrumental. The chemistry is remarkably strong, marrying Statik’s clean piano sample and sharp drums with Nas lend his vocals a refined maturity – precisely what he needs and represents in 2019. The frustrating thing is Statik was putting out DOPE Nas mixtapes at the start of his career – 2004’s “The Prophecy” and 2005’s “Uncommonly Nasty” are both recommended listens.
And that ultimately sums up Nas in 2019 – frustrating. He can clearly still spit elite bars, at more or less the same rate he could over twenty years ago. “The Lost Tapes 2” may be marketed as a sequel, but it’s a selection of largely forgettable album cuts that didn’t make Nas’ last few albums. There’s nothing here that matches the levels of “Black Zombie”, “Purple” or “Doo Rags”, but that was seventeen years ago. Seventeen. Patience wears thin quicker than it ever has before, and unless Nas refrains from making another LP, his next release is likely to be vital in maintaining his legacy – one of hip hop’s most precious.