This has a reputation, to put it mildly. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the one to sort the reputation from the actual record. But I guess I’ll try.
So obviously there is a noticeable trend towards the mainstream in terms of what Nas is (mostly) rapping about. Nas has the reputation, among some connoisseurs, as being one of the very best rappers of all time, in terms of technique. That is something that is somewhat borne out by the other hip hop I’ve listened to. But, as usual for me, on this album I have a harder time hearing his skill in part because of what he is (usually) rapping about. For me, it’s way harder to really care about the lyrics (and, therefore, the technique delivering said words) when someone’s rapping about shooting people and the like. And I think you can criticize him for not entirely committing to this turn, either.
There’s also a noticeable move towards the mainstream in terms of production, which is the thing I agree that people should be particularly critical of. This isn’t a super interesting record in terms of production and its notable that Dr. Dre’s track fits in with everything else rather well. But it’s still less slick than most west coast hip hop of the era (that I am familiar with).
I really have no idea what to do with it. It definitely seems like a step back from illmatic, as the consensus says. But it’s also, like, a lot better than plenty of gangsta/mafioso rap, right? At least, it is to my ears. He’s certainly more creative than most. (Who else has written a track about being a gun? I don’t know.)
But what do I know? I really don’t know much about it, and I’m hesitant to make any kind of solid claims about it.