Secret Meeting score: 86
by Joseph Purcell and Phil Scarisbrick
Another Friday passes and another record sees Kanye West take centre stage. Since Pusha T’s DAYTONA, the releases have been weekly. Next up came his own album Ye, then the collaborative Kids See Ghosts with protégé Kid Cudi, and now West has returned behind the desk for the new release from Queens’ hip-hop royalty, Nas. Like the other records in the series, it is seven tracks long and clocks in under the half hour mark. The album title Nasir, is taken from Nas’ full name – Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, and mixes the legendary linguistics and trademark Nas flow, with the sample-heavy, vocally-driven beats that have become Kanye’s calling card.
The artwork, unveiled by Nas through Twitter last week, immediately gives the observer an insight into the concept of the music within. The incredibly powerful image captured by renowned photojournalist – Mary Ellen Mark – was initially shot as part of a 1988 feature called The War Zone. It focussed on the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of South Dallas, and how the issues of drugs, violence and poverty impacted on everyday life. In the image there are five black children lined up against a brick wall, each holding their hands above their heads akin to a police line-up. One of the children is holding a robot above his head and another is facing the wall shirtless head bowed with what is assumed to be a toy gun, while the others are all facing the camera with both hands raised above their heads, one clutching a toy gun and fear etched on their faces. Above them is a large no trespassing sign, threatening anyone found loitering on the premises. This highly evocative imagery is as relevant now as it was twenty years ago, and Nas lets us know exactly why.
The opening collaboration with Puff Daddy and 070 Shake – Not For Radio – is furious and sees him set out the album’s manifesto. He goes head on into one of the most controversial, and divisive areas of American Society: race relations. Of course, this isn’t a new subject for hip-hop, but right from the opening line- ‘Ay yo we ain’t posin’ for no pictures in 2018, Candid shit only, Scared motherfuckers’, Nas is bristling with venom as he takes the cover image head on. As he hits his stride, he fires through verses referencing significant events in US civil rights history, backed by the repeated lyric, ‘I think they scared of us girl, I think they scared’. Following Kanye’s recent controversial proclamations, including claims that slavery was a ‘choice’, Nas fires back at his producer, claiming that black people enslaved on plantations demanded their freedom rather than having it handed to them by the President. He also references the Black Panthers, who wanted an end to segregation by any means, including force: ‘Abe Lincoln did not free the enslaved, Progress was made ‘cause we forced the proclamation, Fuck your proclamation! SWAT was created to stop the Panthers. Glocks were created for murder enhancement’. As he rips through the injustices, Puff Daddy enters the fray with ferocity- ‘Ayo that’s why they be killing us and shooting us, that’s why they feel uncomfortable around us, cause of your greatness, you’re lucky God made us compassionate and forgiving, Pssh man, they scared of us Nas’.
Following this barnstormer of an opener, Cops Shot The Kids continues the theme of inequality. Opening with a sample of Richard Pryor talking about his experiences of being a black youth in America, Nas and Kanye trade lines about the continuing police brutality against African Americans. The backing track is heavily lifted from Slick Rick’s iconic 1988 hit: Children Story. In a recent tweet, Kanye suggested that each track corresponded to one of the seven deadly sins from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. White Label represents gluttony, with Nas referencing the extremes of the lifestyles of the rich and famous with lines like- ‘We building businesses, you can be mad if you want/It’s bubbly ’til it’s bubbles we see/Drinkin’ like Dean Martin is nothin’ to me/The spirits is somethin’ I can’t part and it’s fun to be me’.
Nasir’s ‘lust’ track is its central piece: Bonjour. Here, Nas references his need to fulfil his desires by describing his sexual attraction with women, how to get past their restraint and still get lucky, eating the finest cuisines, drug references, guilt trips, and flaunting how much wealth he has. The cinematic backing created by Kanye gives the track a grand feel, despite the subject matter being the most lightweight on the record.
Everything feels like it could have been lifted straight off 808s & Heartbreaks, with Kanye’s autotuned vocals interspersed with Tony Williams’ to add a melodic chorus to Nas’ verses. Together, they address greed, as Nas states, ‘Some people have everything they probably ever wanted in life/And never have enough’. Adam & Eve addresses sloth. The chorus reflects how the next generation does not stray too far from the original roots of their parents, which may reflect a negative connotation that people don’t strive to improve their condition and live a better life than the previous generation. As the cover art shows, the same things that affected the black community 20 years ago are still rife now. Closing track – Simple Things – addresses envy. He sees criticism of his personal life as jealousy rather than him doing anything wrong. In the end he concludes that he just wants the simple things for himself and his family, and won’t allow jealousy to poison their lives.
This record is probably the most vital and best work Nas has done since his era-defining debut, Illmatic. The heavy subject matter addressing society as a whole plays like a conflict Nas is fighting within himself against his own personal issues. This is something that most of us feel at some point. While we care about the world at large with poverty, famine, disease, inequality, war and religious tension, we also have our own personal issues we have to deal with. Sometimes it is easy to be aware of the world’s issues, but having enough of your own to deal with to be able to focus on them. This inner turmoil permeates through, and displays a stark vulnerability within him. As with Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece – To Pimp A Butterfly, you connect with the artist because of this vulnerability. Most of us can’t understand the excess of these lifestyles, but we can empathise with issues of family, anxiety, paranoia, grief and depression. They can touch everyone regardless of wealth. Despite its concise length, it covers a lot ground, and come the autumn, should be littering many an end of year list.