Last night, Nas and Kanye West hosted a listening party under the Queensboro Bridge for the release of Nas's new album, Nasir. The pair arrived in a military-style hummer—one of four that sprawled across the lot. Their heads bobbed so hard that it seemed like it might cause injury, and their drink filled hands peaked through the circle of celebrity friends that surrounded them. But no one spoke a word. There wasn’t any explanation of what was to come—no Chris Rock hyping up the crowd. I wanted to see if Nas had anything to say about the allegations that were surrounding him for months, but there was nothing.
It was uncomfortable. On the cover of his last album, 2012's Life Is Good, Nas sat with his ex-wife's wedding dress draped over his knee, and he spent the album itself confessing to the ways he'd fallen short in his marriage. But two months ago Kelis, whom he divorced in 2009, said that Nas had been emotionally and physically abusive through their time together. So when Kanye West tweeted earlier this year that Nas had a new album on the way, it made sense for people to wonder whether or not these new allegations would be brought up. They're not. Nasir does nothing to answer fans' questions.
I spoke to fellow Noisey staff writer Lawrence Burney to unpack what Nas’s silence on Nasir means for rap and whether we can hold the new artists accountable when legends are not.
Lawrence: So, the younger Lawrence inside of me really wants to be excited about this Nas album. Anytime one of the greats swoops in to add some balance to the ever-changing world of rap is a cause for excitement. But things are different this time around for Mr. Jones. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the only real thing I’ve been looking forward to (if it can even be put that way) from this album is for Nas to address the allegations of domestic abuse that his ex-wife Kelis shared earlier this year.
Kristin: Likewise. I think the Kelis interview was such a huge moment that he couldn’t afford to just glaze over those allegations. But, here we are. Nasir does little to address the information that was made public. It feels like a complete cop-out considering Life Is Good’ s content and album cover. He’s been vocal before, this time should’ve been no different.
Lawrence: Right. In hindsight, Life Is Good, while in some ways admitting his fault in destroying the marriage, still kind of victimized Nas to an extent. There he was on the album cover, sulking like: “I fucked up and my girl won’t take me back. I’m so distraught.” But the whole time, according to Kelis, he was beating on her. That framing was really dangerous because I remember a bunch of internet chatter around the album was like, “Oh, she should give him another chance!” Now we see why she wouldn’t. I’d hope no one would after the stuff Kelis alleged.
Kristin: Absolutely. It’s also just such a blow to rap fans, especially women who listen to rap. On one hand, we’re trying to make sure these new waves of problematic artists are facing appropriate consequences, but how can we do that when we aren’t holding our icons to the same level of accountability? By no means am I saying not to listen to every single artist with a problematic past, that’s the simple way out. And unfortunately in our line of work, it’s dangerous to not engage, but at what cost? I felt an incredible amount of guilt last night at the listening party even trying to find Nas’ head among the crowd.
Lawrence: I think people would love to give Nas some leeway because of how much he’s contributed to hip-hop as a culture and a lifestyle. When I heard the news, it really sent my stomach into cramps. Nas has always been one of the few rappers whose lyrics I took to heart. He was in a lot of ways a teacher for me. His observation of the hood added much-needed nuance and care to the conversation. He led me to go research certain books and music. But, like we’ve recently learned with Kanye’s antics, having heroes is becoming more and more useless. For me, at least. And it’s a real shame because I do enjoy a lot of this album. Out of all the projects Kanye has helped roll out over the past month, this is my favorite set of production. Nas sounds really sharp as a lyricist. But, this isn’t enough. If music is supposed to be a conversation between the creators and the listeners, I think it’s safe to say that the only exchange worth having right now in relation to Nas is what the hell happened during his marriage to Kelis. His peers, like Jay-Z and Kanye, have done it on their last albums. I don’t know why he thinks he gets a pass.
Kristin: Yeah, I think even the title Nasir suggests that this should’ve been a bit more personal. I agree that as far as G.O.O.D Music releases go, this isn’t too far away from DAYTONA to me. It sounds great and I’d love to play it to death, but that really just enables him and people like him to continue to behave the way they do. It’s also just weird looking at the optics of it all. It causes you to think who are the celebrities who still support messaging like this and if they’ll ever say anything. This is sticky because like you said, this is Nas. He’s in a lot of Top 5 conversations. But when he’s able to say the line, “Chin grabber, neck choker, in her mouth spitter, blouse ripper, ass gripper” on “I Can Explain” that shows there’s a lack of accountability there. It feels largely irresponsible to even have a line that could be interpreted that way when you have allegations of abuse surrounding you. But it goes beyond just saying the line. I’m just thinking of all the men who worked on this project and thought it was okay to keep that as is. It’s not enough for women to always have to speak up, men have to do the work also. But that’s the kind of environment you create when you only acknowledge the humanity of women based on their proximity to your personal life.
Lawrence: There are some interesting and hypocritical lines on this as well. I could be projecting, but on “Everything” he says “When the media slings mud, we use it to build huts.” On “Bonjour” he says, “Watch who you gettin’ pregnant, that’s long-term stressin’.” Then, and probably worst, he goes “Every verse that I write bursts light, brings awareness to my personal life” on “Adam and Eve.” This is textbook deflection. On top of that, the actual part of his personal life that we are asking for more information on is what he is purposely omitting. So, this is all kind of a weird joke. What he’s saying in spurts here, to me, is “Y’all gonna get whatever I feel like giving and that’s it.” This could have been handled in one verse. Instead, he’s here speaking in strange code. I think that’s turning me off more than him just plain not saying anything.
Kristin: I guess that’s the real point of all of this. He isn’t even treating the situation with any real urgency. You mentioned this Ava Duvernay quote in your essay about problematic artists and it’s completely true. “To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” It feels fitting here also because Nasir doesn’t signify that any real change regarding domestic violence is going to happen any time soon. If an icon isn’t being held accountable, why would a SoundCloud artist feel the need to be the bigger person?
Lawrence: Exactly. We’re no closer to progress in the interest of protecting women in hip-hop than we were before this album dropped. And for that, it’s a failure.