Nas Excavates Old Outtakes With Varied Producers on ‘The Lost Tapes 2’

Nas begins his latest album, “The Lost Tapes 2,” by preemptively dismissing critics, declaring in his opening lines, “I’m oblivious to you skeptics.” With a career that has been altogether patchy this seems like a prudent enough way to start off. The new record is the long-awaited sequel to 2002’s “The Lost Tapes,” which collected outtakes from recording sessions for the two preceeding albums. The second installment has been planned since the release of the first, but found itself shelved indefinitely due to label complications. Over the ensuing seventeen years, Nas has kept busy, dropping six albums to an overall lukewarm reception. Plenty more outtakes have accumulated along the way, and those from the last four albums have finally been compiled for the latest recording. The tracks find Nas working with a slew of acclaimed producers, fitting his rhymes to their individual aesthetics, but always sounding unmistakably himself. It’s a rather rough set of songs overall, but that’s only expected from an undertaking of this nature, and there are enough diamonds in the rough to make it worthwhile. 

Over a production by both Swizz Beatz and AraabMuzik that fits portentous choirs to a minimal pulse, Nas immediately insists on his authenticity, and call outs all the charlatans. From the onset, it’s clear that he still has plenty to say, although the titular phrase, “No Bad Energy” comes across as a bit awkward alongside all of the boasting, as if to beg, “Please don’t hate.” At any rate, it’s an effective opener that finds Nas already rapping with a ferocity that grows considerably more intense in the ensuing track. “Vernon Family” is produced by Pharell Williams, although it doesn’t exactly scream of his signature. Moments in, it’s clear that this is Nas on top of his game, sure to set heads nodding and keep long term fans widely grinning. One juicy aspect of Nas’ lyrics is all the esoteric references for hip-hop heads to pick up from between the lines. Here, he alludes to the infamous “Bridge Wars” of the mid ‘80s, during which a feud between MC Shan and KRS One pitted Nas’ own Queensbridge projects against the South Bronx. Needless to say, Nas is repping the Bridge with as much gusto as ever.  

“Jarreau of Rap,” with crossover jazz artists Al Jarreau and Keyon Harrold, is the most thrilling cut of the album by far. You can literally count on one hand the hip-hop acts who have ever experimented with the likes of odd time signatures. There’s a Tribe Called Quest, “Illadelph Halflife”-era The Roots, and not many more. Here, Nas spits frenzied triplets in 6/8 timing, with a daredevil verve that recalls the outre early undertakings of Blackalicious. Like many exceptional rappers, Nas has learned to generally keep his flashier instincts at bay — at least in terms of technical prowess. A track like this reminds us of the skills we often take for granted. By the end it’s a festive, horn-filled riot, a bit silly but admirable in all its innocent outlandishness. Next comes the self-explanatory “Lost Freestyle,” three minutes and change of straight rapping. Interestingly, it can be hard to tell Nas’ freestyles from his written songs, because of both his improvisational skills and the often incoherent, non sequitur ramblings of his compositions. Consider the following track, “Tanasia,” an outpouring of affection for an eponymous love interest. At one point, Nas rather puzzlingly expounds, “Every man originated in Asia / One continent, Africa was a part of Asia.” He more than compensates, however, with the absolutely priceless line, “We Kim Jong-Illin.’” The Eastern-tinged beat is produced by the legendary RZA, and bears all his trademark stamps. 

Singer-songwriter RaVaughn features on “Royalty,” her richly-informed phrasings grounding the song in another era, and validating the album title “Lost Tapes.” Her layered harmonies add some color and texture to an otherwise relatively dry and monochrome collection. Nas has always sounded decidedly ‘90s, and his juxtaposition with RaVaughn brings out latent aspects of his voice. “Poison,” a recurrent theme in Nas’ music, explored extensively in songs like 2001’s “What Goes On,” and inspiring Swizz Beats to title an album, featuring Nas, “Poison,” comes up again. Interestingly, Frank Ocean is listed under songwriting credits, and his input does appear to make its way vaguely into the music. The Daniel Ranier-featuring “Who Are You” is “reflective” rap, with a fittingly reflective beat, and a lazy chorus that kills any vibe the song had. With all his craft, Nas can seem rather clueless when it comes to putting a song together, as if arbitrarily telling collaborators,“Here’s a line, sing it.” To make matters worse, the lyrics include such gems as “I’m Nas with incredible music.” And this isn’t even a freestyle. Perhaps more bizarre yet, the following track, “Adult Film,” features a refrain of “You are my adult film.” On the bright side, Swizz Beats here offers one of the more intriguing productions, a dense piano-heavy beat with busy, jazzy drums. The song occasionally lapses into the associated frivolity associated with such bohemian, stylings, with another irritating chorus. Still, it’s a standout altogether. 

“War Against Love” is a rich sound collage from DJ Dahi and DJ Khalil, with a soulful sample, and funky synth lines buried subtly in the mix. If Nas’ flow is a hodgepodge of sanctimonious high posturing, braggadaccio and random rhyming words, you can’t deny that he nevertheless has his flow down. “The Art Of It” vaguely recalls the likes of Nas’ all-time great “NY State of Mind” in both its designedly monotonous, head-nodding beat and its litany of street life detail. The song was written in the aftermath of Nas’ divorce from Kelis, and the difficulties of the time make their way into the lyrics, although J. Myers’ breezy chorus balances out most of the tension. “Highly Flavored,” another RZA joint, features a deliciously throwback instrumental — breakbeats, b-boys and all the works. Nas has always excelled in delivering streamlined, rough-hewn cuts like this, eventually coming to retro his own original style on tracks like 2002’s “Made You Look.” His back-to-basics approach here, with a repeated, rapped refrain, a quick turnaround, and spurts of relentless rhyming, makes for a sure standout.

A trip down memory lane, over a mawkishly evocative, string-laden beat, follows on “Queens Wolf.” It’s classic Nas at his most compelling storytelling, replete with a bold, double-tracked chorus and a wealth of vivid detail. The lyrics, on the other hand, are on the stranger side, with Nas drawing a page from the Wu-Tang playbook, and veering into the geekier end of hip-hop with some fantastical fare about werewolves and such. On “It Never Ends,” Nas pays tribute to the Notorious B.I.G, quoting his 1999 song “Come On,” but repurposing B.I.G.’s boasts about his gun collection to raise awareness about violence on the streets. “You Mean the World to Me,” another drawn-out, narrative track, features a beat from none other than Kanye West. It’s a classic Kanye production, in the style that he made his name with — repeating soul vocal sample, detailed ambiance, etc. The track wouldn’t sound out of place on last year’s collaborative effort “Nasir.” Next, Pete Rock takes over production duties for “QueensBridge Politics” placing Nas over an archetypal beat of “boom bap” drums and sparse piano. The song attempts to ease tension following the untimely death of rapper Prodigy, who left on bad terms with much of his community because of a book published before his passing. As with every song on this album, Nas makes sure to ultimately focus on the positive, a tendency that reaches its most pronounced on the final track “Beautiful Life.” The chorus, again sung by RaVaughn, features the refrain “Life Is Good,” a reference to Nas’ 2012 album of the same name. Perhaps the song was cut from the material of those sessions because of how personal Nas gets in the details regarding custody battles and the general aftermath of divorce. At any rate, he ends the song by shrugging it off, putting a positive spin on everything, and wishing everyone the best. 

“The Lost Tapes 2” was not meant to constitute a polished, cohesive collection of songs, and should not be expected to approach anything of the sort. Rather, it’s what you ought to expect from the epithet “Lost Tapes” — essentially a set of arbitrary Nas songs, finally seeing the light of day. Interestingly, the randomness of the assortment accounts for much of the album’s overall appeal. Unconcerned with adherence to any unifying theme, the songs freely survey Nas’ versatile output, making for an enjoyable showcase of his sundry sides. The widely varied production shows Nas meshing with disparate talents, and fans will find a fair number of rashly ditched gems excavated among the chosen cuts.  

The Lost Tapes 2” is available July 19 on Apple Music.