I’d hate to describe it as “refreshing”, since that carries with it a direct comparative tone and doesn’t do well in weighing it with the whole art in mind. However, it’s not only refreshing through the lens of the last couple months as one of the Kanye-headed projects, but also in the grand scope of the modern rap world and its progression towards sounding inclusive and fascinating while maintaining strong cultural purpose. This album is well layered starting in its clear and accessible background foundations with congenial small instrumentation and well-shaped recurring loops, working up towards the powerful spotlight of a solo voice that completely grabs attention and delivers an elegance and attraction I haven’t consistently felt from a rap album in a while.
I’ll start dissecting at the top and work down, beginning with the wonderful solo talent from Nas. He is a very skilled rapper, and shows it off well here by providing the electricity needed over the straightforward foundations through wonderfully engaging rhyme placements, which in turn gave strong phrase direction and enough linear rhythmic variety. The musician becomes more than just a storyteller with such an exposed spotlight within the texture, and Nas executed his melodic layer without much of a sweat, as his verses flew off the page and into the mic with the intriguing twists, wonderful syncopation, and appropriate tempo and dynamic to match the important messages. No need to look further than his mastery on the songs “White Label” and “Adam and Eve”, each with contrasting approaches in tone due to the story, but always finding a way to purposefully deliver the lines through thoughtful musical attributes, making the song a much more important listen than someone simply speaking to a beat.
Speaking of that, common speech did show up a bit in the guest features, most obviously in Kanye West’s part in “Cops Shot the Kid”, which could’ve been a great song having a rhythmically catchy looped sample and engaging, directive percussion if his verses not been so uninterestingly constructed. There was also the song “Bonjour”, which was the one place where the melody blended in too much with a simplistic structure, and the flat-lined tempo and dynamic from Nas didn’t provide the direction or development seen in most other songs. Nothing ever dipped below being a cool, congenial groove, though, which leads me to discussing the background elements.
As I said, everything below the solo voice came off as rather straightforward, but that’s not to say it wasn’t effective or interesting. It had the positive variety of no two songs being exactly alike in instrumentation, with the main sonic layer above the beat revolving between strings, electronic loop, bass, piano, and even woodwinds at the end. It also had the positive consistency in instrumental roles that outlined an obvious pyramid structure of beat, supplemental loops, and solo voice that all worked to support each other and made everything come across clean. This was thin texture done well, mostly thanks to the talent on top.
Perhaps the biggest risk in there is that it puts a lot of weight on the small musical figures underneath the voice to be gratifying enough to repeat while easygoing enough to not detract from the showcased element. I think this album does quite well in that regard, which further distances itself from lots of modern rap I’ve heard recently. I believe it’s also what makes this album just miss out on greatness, though.
The harmonic progressions were nicely functional within themselves and had nice beginning to end motion for the phrase construction, like the bVI-bVII-I groove in “everything” or the neat i-iv-bVII-diminished v in “Simple Things”, but perhaps they could have been a bit more connected with the overall atmosphere or the melodic delivery with stronger attention on finding rhythmic motives and not so much on connecting chordal patterns. The only song to employ a fully useful harmonic structure was “Adam and Eve”, with a simple looping iv-i and engaging piano countermelody.
I also didn’t think the actual percussive beats needed to be so tame without much dynamic vigor at every turn, since even though it kept the balance in tact, there may have been ways to garner a stronger feeling of movement through beat usage while still keeping the balance. Those are my two main critiques, and they mattered much less than the positives of great rhythmic engagement from melody and the intelligent grooves created by repetition of easygoing, purposeful material. With this, Nas has certainly given me my favorite rap album of the year so far. Keep those creative ideas flowing, producer Kanye! Just stay off the mic.