A Firsthand Account of Nas and Kanye's Album Listening Party and The Power and Perils of Celebrity
Nas album listening under the Queensboro bridge pic.twitter.com/ahDUWLxN1e
— Ivie Ani (@ivieani) June 15, 2018
Nas and Kanye hosted a star-studded album listening party in Queens while fans and critics reckon with a new climate in examining artistry, fame, and humanity.
“Are you invited to this Nas thing?” An iMessage popped up on my phone from an industry friend Thursday afternoon. Then a separate text from another friend in the industry that read, almost verbatim, “Are you going to the Nas thing tonight?”
That “thing” everyone was bridling with excitement over was the listening party for Nas’s new Kanye West-produced album, Nasir. I hadn’t planned on attending, but the invitation was personally extended my way and being that it’d mark the rapper’s return with his 11th studio album following a six-year-hiatus, it would be a spectacle of all spectacles. It’d be remiss to ignore or deny the moment’s significance.
Nas has remained relevant since his last project, Life Is Good, with an onslaught of features, television and film franchises, commercial endorsements, and high-profile relationships. Not to mention, his abrupt addition to the ever-growing list of male entertainers who have been accused of abuse by women. The 44-year-old artist is still a topic of conversation in this moment, for reasons that transcend music.
At the premiere mention of a new Nas project, anyone could have guessed the main event would take place in the Queens MC’s old neighborhood. Sprinters picked us up in midtown Manhattan, en route to the secret location. A few programmers had flown in from other parts of the country— California, South Carolina, Memphis. The radio switched to Hot97 as Funk Flex began his set. “Why does he keep talking?” “He hasn’t let any song finish,” “Why is he cutting the records off. Kind of annoying,” murmurs ricocheted from all ends of the car. I couldn’t help but laugh, but my friend grew amusingly and increasingly disgruntled, more concerned with the latent dismissal of one of the few remaining artifacts of staple NY culture within a changing physical and cultural landscape: Funk Flex being loud on the radio. That was just Flex. That was just New York. But, of course, they didn’t get it.
We landed in an open lot under the Queensboro Bridge, somewhere sandwiched between Queensbridge Housing projects and Penthouse Rooftop. It’d been a while since I’d been back to that side of Queens, and it was clear that— much like many other sections of the city— gentrification was slowly, but surely encroaching.
Onlookers peered down at us from the penthouse, overlooking the lot as people began to file in. Many were given black wristbands and arrived to the venue on buses. My friend and I were given white ones and were escorted in black sprinters. Several military tank hummers were parked in the lot, surrounding a tent in the center. A throng of attendees rushed to the tent at the sight of free merch being distributed. I watched as people shouted and clamored for their sizes— neon orange, forest green, and sand tan sweatshirts being tossed every which way. Jadakiss stood behind me, beckoning someone towards the other end of the tent to slide him a sweatshirt, before emitting that beloved, shrill laugh, “Ahaa!”
The theme of the night was undeniable— the tanks, tents, gravel, and army green everywhere. At 10:15 p.m. a stunning visual contrast emerges as a cream-colored Rolls-Royce drove in from the other side of the lot. As the evening grew darker, the stars popped out. Nas and Kanye pulled up in one of the green hummer tanks. Kim Kardashian and La La Anthony positioned themselves on an elevated plank and posed for photos while overlooking a sea of cellphone screens.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) June 15, 2018
Casanova’s diamond chain glistened and gleamed from a few feet away, swinging gingerly across his chest as posed for photos with fans and peers. The 6’5 2 Chainz towered over the crowd. Waka Flocka surfaced with chest-length dreads dangling under a fitted cap. Nas’s extended family Jungle, Yara Shahidi and her mother were spotted. Legends, Rakim and Large Professor also graced the lot, along with Pusha T, 070Shake, Swizz Beatz, Consequence, Kyle, Trinidad James, and Statik Selektah.
Nasir is the fourth West-produced album released over the past few weeks — the others being Pusha-T’s Daytona, West’s own ye, and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts. Public discourse veered towards the morality of engaging with artists who’ve made transgressions— Kanye’s reckless and irresponsible comments, and last month, singer Kelis spoke up on her marriage to Nas, detailing years of physical and emotional abuse. The allegations were met with shock, denial, and dismissal— a cyclical response to the slew of revelations and claims that have surfaced in recent times.
Nas has been silent about the claims, neither confirming nor denying them, save for engaging and egging on fans criticizing Kelis on social media for telling her story. But the accusations haven’t done much to fan away the nimbus of praise surrounding Nas.
It seemed mostly celebrities and celebrity-adjacent people were in attendance, some radio and programming industry heads at this listening party, but not much media. This is shaping up to be the standard rollout for these G.O.O.D album listening sessions. Perhaps Kanye’s slightly Trump-esque disdain for the media is an extension of his attempt at quelling critique, and creating a space for adoration and acclamation only, as opposed to the dredging weight of criticism. If so, it bore successful, as the “good vibes” were at an all-time high. People bounced and bopped and cheered and danced. In that space, to the devoted and the deniers, Kanye and Nas were above reproach, and the music, which was good, drowned out all opposition. But I existed on the periphery of that praise, as much of it didn’t settle well with me.
QUEENS WAS LIT pic.twitter.com/l3FR2iKRkQ
— Def Jam Recordings (@defjam) June 15, 2018
Chris Rock stood beside me, his two teenage daughters were close by, as he posed for photos with a few onlookers. At Kanye’s album listening party in Wyoming earlier this month, Rock praised the artist in tandem with a take on the cultural conception and influence of rap music. He erroneously but emphatically proclaimed ,”Hip-hop is the first art form created by free black men.” He extended that same adoration he expressed for Kanye that night, this night, reveling in the legacy of one of the genres most luminary lyricists. He said, with much conviction, “Nas is a God MC.”
Chris Rock stating facts! 💯 pic.twitter.com/umSy3i2ma6
— Def Jam Recordings (@defjam) June 15, 2018
I couldn’t help but think about how this experience, like many other industry happenings, felt like the velvet rope effect— a mystifyingly stymieing and empowering force felt when in the presence of people and spaces regarded as higher-status. On the title of her 1997 album The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson talked about the nightclub experience and the symbolic significance of the velvet rope. “The velvet ropes they put up separate the people inside from those wanting to get in. The ones inside feel special.”
The physical barrier used at industry events to prohibit access from spectators, doubles as a semaphore of the figurative barricade that enables us to reevaluate just how much access we have to the lives and histories of people we’ve been familiarized with through fame and celebrity.
That night, I was granted access to a space that many, inside and outside media and the entertainment industry, covet. But what arises as questionable is the nature of said access and how it morphs and taints our ability to examine the environment around us. That access alone could make a journalist write a positive review, or make a fan forget their idol’s flaws. That proximity to the people and spaces who are so oft denied access to can cloud our judgement and our ability to reckon with our responsibilities as consumers and critics.
When a celebrity’s silence, lack of access to their thoughts, lived experiences, and personal history becomes something that is clung to and projected on instead of investigated or examined, unreadability trumps reason and the notions of separating an artist from the art is looked to as the solution to this particular societal ill that has besmirched the entertainment industry.
Problematic behavior is excused, false narratives are created, personas are protected, and celebrity is shielded from the realities of the masses. When flawed figures are canceled and condemned, rather than being held accountable and having their actions contextualized, we compromise and conflate our own morals, politics, beliefs, and lived experiences with celebrity.
I don’t make idols out of celebrities, nor do I look to entertainers for political guidance. I’ve been desensitized to disappointment as it pertains to figures who make transgression after transgression. Now more than ever, I see them as reflections of the world we navigate every day. They are both products and perpetrators of the isms that plague us. They are wrong and right. They are talented and ill-equipped. They are scarred and they scar. They are human, not heros, and no album, not even one from God’s Son, knocks hard enough to sweeten that bitter truth.