Nas – Lost Tapes (2002)

Nas Lost Tapes

The beginning of Nas’ career is stuff of legends. Illmatic immediately solidified Nas as a critic’s darling, as publications raved about the up-and-comer set to take over the New York scene. It would take seven years for Illmatic to reach platinum status – but over the years, it gained a reputation as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. The follow up, It Was Written indicated a shift in style, pointing more towards mafioso than grimy street level narrative perspective. Dedicated fans saw it as a sell out but It Was Written not only maintained similar themes as Illmatic – it propelled Nas into the spotlight, earning a #1 spot on the Billboard hip-hop charts. With a top 50 hit “If I Ruled The World” and two critically acclaimed albums under his belt – Nas was set to take over the New York scene. His next project, I Am… The Autobiography was slated as a double. An in-depth, introspective release that would prove more than just the gritty Illmatic or the mafioso It Was Written. 

Alas, history didn’t favor Nas – as most of The Autobiography was leaked, bootlegged and sent into far reaching corners of the internet. The sessions were scrapped, the album cut to one disc and the title shortened to I Am. The resulting release is a complete disaster, hinting at many issues that would haunt Nas throughout his career. Standouts like “Nas Is Like” and “NY State of Mind II” are surrounded by filler. The project is dragged down by poor beats, sloppy hooks and an overall uneven tone, obviously spurred by the untimely leak. One of the disastrous moments of Nas’ career, it was the beginning of his worst stretch as a musician.

Luckily for Nas, the best was yet to come. 2001’s Stillmatic signaled a potential comeback, spurring the infamous Jay Z beef and a fiery return to form. In the midst of this brief success, Colombia music made the wise decision to release the leftovers from the Autobiography sessions, now known as Lost Tapes. While this compilation could be easily cast aside as a mediocre effort or a label-driven money grab, it’s actually one of Nas’ finest moments. Introspective and touching, it’s a complete shift in style and a hint of what could have been with The Autobiography. Instead of confused and uneven, the tracks are incredibly earnest and straightforward. They’re story-driven and personal, largely avoiding most of Nas’ most glaring issues as a musician. Gone are the lazy hooks, mediocre beats and appeals for popularity. This isn’t a commercially driven album but instead an in-depth look at Nas’ personal struggles. And as a result, it’s shockingly cohesive for a compilation.

Several tracks on The Lost Tapes prove themselves to be career standouts. Equal parts nostalgic and introspective, “Doo Rags” is a look back at Nas’ childhood, reflecting on how he become the artist he is today. In addition, he turns the track into a scathing critique of modern society. He throws shots at crooked cops, South African Apartheid, Confederates and the prison system. “Black Zombie” continue this theme, discussing racial passing and mob mentality. In these tracks, he’s shockingly political, hinting toward the fiery approach taken on Street’s Disciple and Untitled.

The remaining tracks on Lost Tapes are a mix between intimately personal and incredibly effective brag raps. “Purple” finds Nas in the midst of a smoking sesh, reflecting in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. Beginning with his own personal issues, he gets increasingly concerned with others. Not only are these quarrels his own – but they’re those of his society. It’s among my personal favorite Nas tracks because it’s so in the moment, so intimate. It follows an incredibly logical pattern and you can almost follow Nas along his own thought process. You almost can picture Nas with a close knit group friends, bouncing ideas off them, growing increasingly weary and increasingly intoxicated. Songs like “Poppa Was a Playa” and “No Idea’s Original” find Nas following this theme, reflecting on his father’s upbringing and his struggle with the creative process.

Production wise, Lost Tape is also one of Nas’ best moments. The beats on here are beautifully crafted loungy jazz cuts put together by producers like The Alchemist and L.E.S. The low-key, mellow atmosphere suits Nas’ low register voice perfectly. A twinkling piano riff keeps the hazy “Purple” afloat. Booming bass churns along on “My Way”, allowing for rare enjoyable Nas chorus. Swirling synths and a dramatic string ensemble ensure “Drunk By Myself” is equally melancholy and disorienting. In the end, the beats are remarkably simple – riding off a single element, a poppy riff or a subtle bassline. Not overambitious, they avoid the clutter and chaos of some of Nas’ own beats. Yet they have just enough energy and power behind them to avoid feeling flimsy or unconvincing.

Though the music of Lost Tapes is fascinating, it’s also intriguing from a historical perspective. If these tracks had made it onto I Am or the original hadn’t been scrapped – would Nas be even more critically acclaimed? Would he still be forced to release the poppy, rushed Nastradamus to regain an audience in 1999? Had the internet not intervened early in the production of The Autobiography, perhaps things would’ve turned out differently. Perhaps struggles with quality control would be less prevalent. It’s an aspect I think of every time I listen to Lost Tapes, wondering if one of the most talented MCs of the 90s could’ve had an even better career.

As a whole, Lost Tapes is a remarkable project. It’s Nas at a rare crossroads, between grimy and poppy, personal and political. He’s zoned in on every track – ensuring the project is thematically cohesive and devastatingly personal. Aside from a poor hook or two, there isn’t a major flaw in Lost Tapes which is unfortunately rare in his discography. I count it as one of Nas’ best projects and it’s something I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in hip-hop.

Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

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