Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Nas’s Nastradamus (1999)
1999 was a strange time for music, especially hip-hop. The genre was only a few years removed from the deaths of its two biggest stars; Jay-Z had become a superstar; and a slew of young cats had entered the game. At the same time, Napster exploded onto the scene and online piracy immediately turned the music industry upside down, forcing several major rap acts to change their albums on the fly.
The biggest victim of this was Nas, who, after the classic Illmatic and the highly successful It Was Written, had been preparing an epic concept double album titled I Am…The Autobiography for his third release. When much of that album leaked, Nas scrapped both the concept and the double album, recorded a few new songs, and released a one disc mishmash titled simply I Am… in May, 1999.
But Nas, perhaps because he had been planning a double disc, was determined to release another album before the end of the year and, against his label’s suggestion to simply release the rest of the original tracks (as they would eventually do with The Lost Tapes), Nas, a notoriously slow creator, decided to record more than half of a new album from scratch. Moreover, he wasn’t in the best state of mind: “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.”
The result was Nastradamus, a commercially successful project that received mixed critical reviews (Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-; Rolling Stone gave it 2 stars out of 5; USA Today awarded it 3.5 stars out of 4) and ultimately reached platinum status, but is now seen as a low point in one of the greatest careers in hip-hop history.
How is this possible?
It could be that the singles – “Nastradamus” and “You Owe Me” – led to sales, but that the rest of the project was disappointing. It could be that fans of Nas felt he could do better, and they would ultimately be proven correct. It could also be that people believe the narrative, one that has been cemented over the past decade-and-a-half, that Nastradamus is an audio abomination, without even having heard it. Or, like with everything else, particularly in the Age of the Internet, negative reactions are louder than positive ones.
Most likely, the answer is a combination of all of the above.
Nastradamus is often at the heart of a “What if” debate. If I Am…The Autobiography had been released as originally planned, how would Nas’s career path changed? How would hip-hop have changed? Would Jay-Z had dared to attack Nas in that scenario?
We’ll never know, but we still do have Nastradamus, so let’s see how it’s aged since the dawn of the millennium.
It’s not Illmatic or Stillmatic or God’s Son or even Life Is Good. It is one of Nas’s weaker efforts, but it’s better than most people remember. Hip-Hop has seen far worse LPs.
Still, it could have been stronger. The element that hindered the album the most was Nas himself.
The fast-tracking of the album combined with his feeling of being in a “gray area” led to a strange situation and the album is an outgrowth of that. Seven cuts were originally meant for the double album and it’s clear because they sound different from the other seven. As a result, many of the songs don’t flow together and few even contradict one another. It all led to a confusing work.
The title and the album imagery is meant to conjure a prophet during the end of days, a serious topic, but only a few of the songs even refer to it and some seem to defy it outright. Like the first single, which was also the title track. Nas has admitted that it came off the top of his head: “I just freestyled it. I was riding high off multi-platinum sales off I Am…, and just didn’t want to do anything but freestyle that single and put it out.” This not a surprise because the song may have the most throwaway lines and basic rhymes in any Nas song, not to mention the awful hook, but it was a weird choice to put such little time and effort into a lead single, particularly since this was a time when singles still drove much of album sales, he had just released an album earlier that year, and he was (supposedly) trying to convey a message with the record.
It’s no surprise that the majority of the album’s best songs were those that had been meant for I Am…The Autobiography, including “Life We Chose,” “Project Windows,” and the Mobb Deep-featured “Family.” The DJ Premier-laced “Come Get Me” is one of the earliest salvos in the Nas/Jay-Z mêlée, with the second verse aimed at Jigga and the third verse most likely intended for Nas’s former homeboy Cormega.
While most of the newer material was subpar, there is one gem to be found. The Havoc’s “Shoot ’em Up” beat samples Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky’s Christmas classic from 1914,”Carol of the Bells,” and Nas follow suit with a flow that matches the cadence of the music as he relates a tale in the first-person about life on the streets.
Illmatic is ten tracks and if I were advising Nas, I would try to get him to keep his albums tight like that. Stillmatic should have also been kept to ten tracks and most of his albums could have benefited from leaving a few songs on the cutting room floor. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Nastradamus. The back third of the album just falls apart and this is where the newly recorded songs were buried. It’s clear they were rushed. They lack a clear direction and, largely, the lyrics lack much depth.
Bravehearts pop up to say a whole lot of nothing on “Quiet N–s” and on “New World,” Nas tries to paint a picture of the future that sounds like it was made by someone far less intelligent. “Big Girl,” which finds Nas putting a spin on the The Stylistics’s classic “You’re A Big Girl Now,” is just atrocious. It just doesn’t sound good and, worse, its message about praising a strong, independent woman loses much of its impact considering the popular but completely disposable “You Owe Me” with Ginuwine is only two tracks later.
For some reason, Nastradamus has been held up as the ultimate rap music failure and I’m really not sure why. It’s not like it’s unlistenable. It has its weak points, but are they really worse than the duds that are on Hip Hop Is Dead? Does it deserve more vitriol than any other album that has been featured in this section (see below)? And if the reason it is so despised is because Nas was capable of so much more, then shouldn’t we say the same about Kingdom Come or Encore or any other wack album made by a great artist?
When taken as a whole, Nastradamus is the ultimate example of what has plagued Nas since It Was Written: the two halves of his personality – the intellectual street poet and the commercial rap star – fighting for control of his soul and his work, resulting in a disjointed project that has some highs and several lows, but is better than its reputation.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Tha Doggfather | Blood in My Eye | The Best of Both Worlds | Can-I-Bus | Beats, Rhymes and Life | Encore | Immobilarity | 14 Shots to the Dome | Forever | Christmas on Death Row | Double Up | The New Danger | A Better Tomorrow | Back from Hell | For All Seasons | Welcome to: Our House | Blood Money | Til the Casket Drops | Yeezus
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.