It was the turn of the century, and Nas had just revitalized his career with an album that made reference to his groundbreaking debut that established himself as hip-hop royalty. Stillmatic was released in December of 2001 to commercial success and critical acclaim, following the mixed and polarizing reactions that It Was Written, I Am…, and Nastradamus misguidedly received in years prior. Those albums were thought to be a deviation from Nas’ style and winning formula, thus what became overlooked were plenty of timeless records along the way like “Project Windows,” “Last Words,” and “NY State of Mind Pt. II,” all of which were the sheer embodiment of what made the Gods Son a God MC in his purest form.
Nonetheless, the long-awaited ‘follow-up’ to Illmatic provided a spark to Nas’ career that couldn’t be ignored or disputed, as soon after its success the label decided to quickly release two more albums of archived content that had either been bootlegged or left in the stash, leading to the rather inconsequential EP From Illmatic to Stillmatic: The Remixes as well as the highly essential and unforgettable Lost Tapes.
Comprised of various previously leaked or unreleased records that were recorded from 1998 to 2001, The Lost Tapes proved to be the perfect bridge between albums at this point in his artistry, whereas the essence of hip-hop had now been found within a project full of miscellaneous records that were coveted more than anything Top 40 radio could ever manufacture or represent. Sure enough, the effortless tone of the project only fueled the momentum Nas had built through his historic battle with Jay Z, as the release of gems like “Purple,” “Doo Rags” and “My Way” felt like a victory lap for those that believed that hip-hop’s crown now belonged in Queens.
Now almost twenty years removed from the timeless album, Nas has finally dropped the long-awaited sequel after many delays and well-publicized disputes with Def Jam, that highlighted how easily industry politics can derail even the greatest artists without exception. All the same, through a partnership with his own Mass Appeal Records, The Lost Tapes 2 was eventually released on Def Jam almost a decade after Nas had originally planned, which was naturally enough time for him to grow and evolve into a much different artist altogether - long enough for some to wonder if he’d inevitably lost a step along the way.
Staying true to the theme of the first volume, the second tape is said to be a compilation of previously unreleased tracks recorded between Nas’ last four studio albums, during the Hip Hop is Dead (2006), Untitled (2008), Life Is Good (2012), and Nasir (2018) sessions that aside from the latter seemed to carry on tradition without any signs of slowing down. On the contrary, Nas has managed to sustain his top-tier status while withstanding the test of time in hip-hop, where with this latest release he reaffirms that even with all the rust his sword is still sharper than most.
The album starts off with the Swizz Beatz and AraabMUZIK produced “No Bad Energy,” that Swizz stated was recorded in 2016 along with “Adult Film” and “Echo” during the same week in Los Angeles. Aside from its positive vibes and a well-played “Oochie Wally” reference, however, the track doesn’t set a tone that’s really worth mentioning, and through the first three records the project fails to give off the same classic feel as the original.
With that said, even when Nas isn’t at his best he still provides timeless gems and quotables, made evident in the Pharrell produced “Vernon Family” where he raps: “Nowadays I'm just showing my age/the new goons hardly heard of these legendary names, it's strange/The Bridge rappers influenced me son/but if I was in the Juice Crew we woulda won.” To his point, although the genre has gone through many transformations over the years from autotune to mumble rappers, the essence of hip-hop is most definitely still alive even with all its experimentation.
Thus right on cue, Nas delivers his own unorthodox flow for the album’s first single by way of the “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack)”, inspired by the decorated vocalist Al Jarreau that passed away in 2017. The ambitious track interpolates “Round Round Round (Blue Rondo a La Turk)” by Jarreau who himself samples the classic Jazz record of the same name by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, and although awkward at times it still delivers as Nas maintains that he “made the Mets hat more famous than Strawberry” as his contemporary once said about the classic Yankees fitted.
Nonetheless, the album doesn’t really pick up steam until the Statik Selektah produced “Lost Freestyle,” which finds Nas returning to his classic form to deliver one of his best records in recent memory. “Who be the holy prophet they watchin’ with all his posture?/His Rothstein goggle game be the dopest, he gots to/be from the '80s era, his tint is shade Carrera, Queens forever,” he rhymes with a purpose over the instrumental, prior to likening the opposition to “amateur Hanna-Barbera characters” as only a street poet could.
From there, other highlights include the RaVaughn assisted “Royalty,” the Lauryn Hill inspired “War Against Love,” and the previously released “Who Are You” that includes a second verse that’s one for the history books. “Thinking of a master plan, sipping on disaster, smoking on gangster, watching n***** argue, chillin' on my bar-stool, with my ‘Hell Up in Harlem’ hat in hand,” he coasts while delving into his patented storytelling mode, for a record that was left off the criminally underrated Untitled album that for all its imagery was clearly before its time.
Otherwise, a concept record inspired by none other than a cult classic film from the ’80s is perhaps the singular greatest moment on the project, as Nas paints a picture of himself as a “Queens Wolf” in the same vein as Michael J. Fox in all its vintage. Reminding the listener that his paintbrush is truly one of one with no comparisons, he sets the scene by rhyming: “at fourteen tried out for the ball team/junior high they denied me, I shot bricks that made the backboard scream,” over the DJ Toomp instrumental that’s also one of the standouts on the tape. Interestingly enough, the last time Nas and Toomp collaborated was for “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)” off the aforementioned Untitled album back in 2008, another classic album cut that was likely recorded during the same session.
Elsewhere on the compilation, there’s more production from RZA, Kanye West, The Alchemist, No I.D. and Pete Rock, none of which disappoint on records that even to date may not be fully realized. Complete with homage paid to fallen legends like The Notorious B.I.G. and the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep, there are also a few full-circle moments as Nas addresses prior controversies that for better or worse defined his borough during the golden age of hip-hop. “Why Prodigy mural get vandalized? Why Prodigy?” Nas openly questions on the album, while going on record to pay tribute to his former collaborator and one-time nemesis that undoubtedly pushed his pen as they both became legends and cultural icons.
Thus the growth and evolution of a man, father, and artist is likely the central theme that can be found on The Lost Tapes 2, where even past his prime he’s exceeded all the levels of expectation laid before him with respect to the pioneers, keeping in mind that aside from JAY-Z there’s been few emcees to continue this level of success after so many years. For that reason, Nas contradicts the idea that rap as a sport is truly a young man’s game at its core, instead giving credence to the fact that with age comes wisdom and that he still has a lot to say. The question remains, however, is whether or not that reputation is fully carried out by his two most recent releases, or if it’s above all just a testament to all the timeless music that he’s given us before.
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