The Lost Tapes 2 (released July 19, 2019)
It seems weird – almost unfair – that an artist as legendary as Nas still feels the need to prove himself. But here we are.
Call it the curse of Illmatic: Without question, Nas’ debut is not only the greatest rap record ever recorded, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music ever made. But that gift has also been his greatest curse – Nas has spent 25 years unsuccessfully trying to top it. No matter now many great albums followed (and there have been many), skeptics will always shrug and say, “meh, Illmatic is better.” I mean, Michael Jackson never topped Thriller either. It’s a bar that will never be cleared.
Or, you can call it the curse of changing times: Nas’ last proper LP was 2012’s Life is Good, an album so incredible it was the last time I’ve given a record a 5-star review on this site. But that was seven years ago, a lifetime in hip-hop. In fact, there’s an entire generation of fans who only know of Nas’ legacy in passing, only equating him as “that guy Jay Z had beef with.” His relatively low profile means he hasn’t connected with fickle fanbases, especially when last year’s ultra-divisive sorta LP/sorta EP Nasir floundered – a rushed release that isn’t nearly as bad as detractors say but certainly not up to Nas’ lofty standards.
So in order to re-establish a legacy, Esco is going back to his roots.
The original Lost Tapes concept, a compilation of leftover tracks circa 1999, served as a bit of redemption when Nas’ credibility was at its lowest. Likewise, Lost Tapes II looks to be this era’s version of damage control – a chance to prove to longtime fans and newbies that Nas is still one of the greatest to touch a mike.
And, like its predecessor, Nas digs way back in the archives to prove it. Several of the tracks on this release have been in my iTunes library (RIP, iTunes) for the better part of a decade. So while most of these songs are far from “new,” it proves talent is ageless.
It should come as no surprise that literally seconds into The Lost Tapes II, Nas goes directly at his detractors: “I’m oblivious to you skeptics/What you hear you ain’t ever hear till I repped it/Iridescent heroes essence, please clear the exits.” Over a haunting chant (and what certainly seems a loop of DMX’s adlibs), Nas uses “No Bad Energy” to set the stage for the next hour of music – no frills lyricism.
“Lost Freestyle” is my favorite kind of Nas – Statik Selektah lays down the track and gets out of the way while Nas starts firing off rounds:
Amateur Hanna-Barbera characters know they envy
The illest Hennessy Black sipper with loaded semis
You pick of the week, voted-in rappers you go against me
You can’t tantalize a call girl with just a roll of pennies
Can’t bait a lion in ya trap without a tranquilizer
You entering a boxing ring with no trainer beside ya
Don’t expect a bunch of disconnected freestyles here. Nas has often been knocked for underwhelming production, and The Lost Tapes II allows him to experiment over different sonic stylings. Kanye West slowly escalates the sample of “You Mean the World to Me” during Nas’ verse – at first it seems like Nas is competition with the beat but over time he settles in with it, meshing together in synch. Swizz Beatz ditches the cavalcade of synths and hi-hats he’s known for for melodic keys on “Adult Film,” making for a much more romantic experience that the song’s title might suggest. And RZA’s Eastern-influenced production on “Tanasia” is probably the best beat on the record.
However, “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack)” is a little harder to swallow. Nas impressively skats over Al Jarreau’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” – it’s a true feat of lyrical dexterity – and while it’s a great technical showcase (trust me, you favorite rapper CANNOT pull this off this well) it still comes off as slightly awkward. It’s a cool idea that ALMOST works but I understand why it never made an album.
But what does work is Nas’ storytelling, once again proving that no one paints mental pictures like Nasir Jones. Nas uses “Who Are You” to fire back at black professionals who feel that they’ve “ascended blackness,” using their newfound success to criticize their culture. “Queens Wolf,” where Nas pretends to be a werewolf, sounds like a disaster on paper but he’s so committed to the concept that listening to his “transformation” is like enjoying a horror movie podcast. I mean, this is the same guy who rapped about being a roach in the projects and pretended to be a killer’s gun, so it’s not foreign territory.
The album ends with a deeper look into Nas’ oft-guarded psyche – “QueensBridge Politics” serves as not just a tribute to his home but to his fallen friend Prodigy of Mobb Deep. And those disappointed by the lack of juicy gossip regarding his failed married to Kelis on the Nasir album gets a heaping helping of it on “Beautiful Life”:
These rappers talkin’ real s*** I lived
How many been married, divorced, their ex lady wildin’
Hires a lawyer, judge awards ’em monthly 80 thousand
Stevie Wonder sent me word that he was in my corner
Blind but still sees the pain of a young performer
Used to be my rib thought it was till death do us
She married again and I’m wishin’ all the best to her
Despite Nas sounding better than he has in years, I’m fully aware that The Lost Tapes II will still have its detractors. The production sounds a little dated because, well, most of these songs are nearly 10 years old. And several songs (“The Art of It,” “Highly Favored”) are lyrically sound but lack the flash of mainstream hits.
Will The Lost Tapes II win over a new generation of Nas fans? Probably not. But for longtime fans who questioned Nas’ claim to the throne, it’s confirmation that Nas remains rap royalty.
Call it redemption if you want but one thing’s for sure – the king stay the king.
Best tracks: “Lost Freestyle,” “Tanasia,” “Who Are You”
4 stars out of 5