Nas’ fourth solo LP Nastradamus gets a bad rap. Revisiting the 15-year-old work proves it’s not quite the epic fail its made out to be
Nas is arguably the best pure MC ever in terms of raw skill, a combination of insight and evocative storytelling ability previously unseen in hip-hop. He’s the creator of what’s regarded as the genre’s best debut and most celebrated album ever in Illmatic. With that said, he might also be responsible for creating its most highly-anticipated follow-up project with It Was Written. By the close of the ‘90s, he was cemented as an elite artist, a status that was unquestioned until he released two albums in the century’s final year, I Am… and Nastradamus. The latter has been condemned and become the source of more than a decade’s worth of snaps at Nas’ expense. But on the 15th anniversary of its release, here’s something to consider: Is Nastradamus really as horrible as many say it is?
The short, difficult-to-accept answer, is no.
Nastradamus isn’t a good album for an artist of Nas’ caliber and is definitely the weakest link in his catalog, but it isn’t the universally-panned abomination that most make it out to be. In fact, it wasn’t even universally-panned—the reception was mixed.
“On his second album of 1999, Nastradamus, this gangsta griot balances apocalyptic boho poetry and roughneck gun talk with a sniper’s precision and a philosopher’s depth,” Matt Diehl wrote for Entertainment Weekly, which graded the album A-. “Amid inner-city symphonics, blaxploitation wahwah guitars, soul vocalizing, and Toto samples, Nas raps tales of betrayal, paranoia, honor, and redemption that would give Scarface pause.”
Other critics found the album to be simply ordinary, but, of course, there were also unfavorable reviews. Writing for Rolling Stone, Kevin Powell said Nas had “gone from being a leader of the new school to being a follower.” He closed his review with the assertion that the album “offers little in the way of prophecy, and even less for the next chapter in hip-hop.”
What I’ve found is that many peers and people I’ve engaged in random music discussions about Nastradamus listened to reviews (the negative ones, especially) of the album and the opinions of others, not the actual album. Or took Jay Z’s indictment of half of Nas’ early, post-Illmatic works on “Takeover” as the holy grail. In some cases, I’ve even played select cuts for people who previously lambasted it, only for them to acknowledge that they aren’t terrible. It’s a sad lesson on group think, as well as how music criticism makes some believe they don’t have to think for themselves.
There are bad songs on Nastradamus, but fewer than acknowledged. Of the 15 tracks, two are poor and one is flat-out terrible. “You Owe Me,” which everyone references first, and “Nastradamus,” the lead single, fall into the first category. Nas and Ginuwine were a strange pairing on the former, and Timbaland’s production would’ve been better suited for a different artist. “Nastradamus” borrows the same J.B.’s sample EPMD used on “Let the Funk Flow” and might’ve been better received if Nas didn’t try to sing the hook. The worst song on Nastradamus is “Big Girl,” a poorly-conceived idea that violates the Stylistics’ original which inspired it. But what critics (professional and self-appointed) forget or just don’t acknowledge is that there are good—even great—songs on this album.
Despite its denunciation, Nastradamus contains one of Nas’ best creations. “Project Windows” is a definitive Nas offering, as he reflects on the madness which shaped his perspective with a detached, yet intricate awareness that’s alarming considering the subject matter. The gloomy piano keys and Ronald Isley’s pained background vocals add to the gloom, creating the perfect audio depiction of a dreary, 40-degree day in the Queensbridge Houses captured in black and white. Nas and DJ Premier have formed one of hip-hop’s most rewarding unions since first teaming up on Illmatic, and “Come Get Me” is another great collaboration. Premo’s triumphant production is the perfect compliment to Nas’ defiance: “Power and crime, thugs slingin’ powder and dimes/Twenties of D, is yo’ niggas wilder than mine?” he asks on the opening verse. Lyrically, he was as sharp as he’d always been.
On “Some of Us Have Angels,” Nas riffs on the blessings that save the lucky, while lamenting the ills that destroy others. He personifies a jail cell on “Last Words” (“Convicts think they alone/but if they listen close, they can hear me groan/touch the wall feel my pulse”), revisiting the literary technique he first explored on an earlier Premo collaboration, the brilliant “I Gave You Power.” His Queensbridge brethren Mobb Deep appear on “Family,” which isn’t as fondly remembered as their other joint efforts—“Eye For an Eye (Your Beef Is Mines),” “Live Nigga Rap,” and the Scarface-influenced “It’s Mine”—as they’re included on superior projects. Still, at worst, it’s average.
Awkward production keeps “Life We Chose” from being great, which remains unfortunate because Nas proffers great insight: “Is love a four-letter word that deceives the ear?” Meanwhile, a goofy hook and Christmasy melody stunts the twisted “Shoot ‘Em Up,” knocking it down to average like the remaining tracks: “God Love Us,” “Quiet Niggas,” and “New World.”
Nastradamus is undoubtedly Nas’ worst album, inferior to the works which preceded it, as well as those that followed. Though it remains the lowlight on his résumé, it’s largely mediocre rather than the monumental disaster that it’s accepted as. Some critics doused the album with hyperbolic lighter fluid and set it ablaze, compelling many to simply take their word for it, judging the album without listening to anything outside of the singles or other’s words. Luckily for Nas, he’s at peace with the hate.
“On that album, there’s a couple of songs that have a certain sound to it that doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve done,” he explained to Rolling Stone. “And it was a gray area in my life and that album represents that gray area. It was personal stuff that I’d rather not elaborate on. But I have nothing against that album.”
The inconvenient truth about Nastradamus is that if the original I Am… wasn’t bootlegged, then Nas wouldn’t have abandoned songs that later helped comprise the superb Lost Tapes, record new material, and rush to complete what ended up being Nastradamus.
“I Am…, [released earlier that year], was originally supposed to be a double album, but the songs leaked and that killed it for me. I didn’t want to touch it,” Nas said. “I hated that because no one’s supposed to hear a song before it’s time, so if that happens, I didn’t fuck with the record. It’s over. The record never existed. So I went and started brand new music.”
If that’s an excuse, then so is saying Jay-Z was rusty and past his prime when he released Kingdom Come.
The narrative of Nastradamus’ failure is an exaggerated one. Two years later, he shut detractors up with with his return to form, Stillmatic. —Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble has written for Complex, the Washington City Paper, Billboard, HipHopDX and more. Follow him on Twitter here.