Album Review: Nas Ascends His Throne Once More

It is no secret that the front half of Nas’ discography heavily outweighs the second half in terms of lyrics, musical relevance and overall cultural impact. Although his lyrics have remained potent and relevant throughout his career, Nas’ rapping over boom-bap style production solidified his greatness in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but began to feel bland and overdone after a while. Nas was still making music that presented important ideas and messages, but without production that drew people in for the musical aspect of the album, which made his lyrics less impactful than they once were in the past.

This is why what Nas was able to do on his new album, King’s Disease, is truly a musical feat; instead of relying on the usual production style that allows him to lyrically thrive, Nas employed the help of Hit-Boy, a producer whose style greatly contrasts the production that Nas usually raps over. The production of Hit-Boy paired with the strong lyrical ability of Nas does not only work, it really works, as their collaboration is a beautiful combination that brings out the best of both rapper and producer. With features of artists both new and old, Nas is able to use his unrivaled lyrical ability to flow off of Hit-Boy’s stylistic production and produce an album that spans across multiple generations.

The chemistry between Nas and Hit-Boy is evident from the very beginning of the album, as King’s Disease opens with its title track. The soulful production is light and pretty, and although it is not stylistically what Nas is accustomed to, he raps over the beat effortlessly. Nas makes his purpose to uplift black men and women known early in the album, as he raps, “The stupidest part of Africa produced Blacks that started algebra / Proof, facts, imagine if you knew that as a child, bruh.” Nas’ lyrics pack rhymes, punchlines and a steady flow that oozes charisma and confidence, and this confidence carries directly over to the second track of the album, “Blue Benz.” The tracks sees a vastly different production approach, as a synthy bass, heavy percussion and a snapping snare and hi hat combo prove once again to be no challenge for Nas’ lyrical ability. After flaunting his success, fashion style and street cred, Nas demonstrates his effortless storytelling ability, all while maintaining a steady flow and charismatic cadence that shines throughout the track. Once again, “Car #85” sees a change of style in production, as the use of synths once again shines through in both the melody and the bass over a slower, more melodic beat. As Charlie Wilson’s vocal harmonies add a beautiful soulfulness to the track, Nas once again flexes his skills as a storyteller, and details a time from the past when he and a friend falsely believed they were about to be pulled over by the police while in a taxi. His ability to take the listener back to the late 80’s is nothing short of brilliant, and his detailing of Car 85 and its importance in the neighborhood is both revealing and powerful.

The album changes gears slightly on the album’s single and fourth track, “Ultra Black,” as Nas once again shifts his focus on uplifting black communities. Lines like “Grace Jones skin tone, but multi that / Multiple colors, we come in all shades, mocha black,” and “African black soap caress the flesh / Superfly, The Mack, sittin’ fly in the ‘Lac,” serve to celebrate the cultural importance and significance of black culture in America. After more lyrical empowerment and a subtle jab at LA artist Doja Cat (to any Doja Cat fans, good luck forming an argument against Nas, you’ll need it), Nas continues to shine a light on the black community on “27 Summers,” and specifically black women, as he raps “Black-grown, black-owned / Black women is the backbone.” Nas also calls for “more black CEOs” in the chorus of the song, all while rapping over more synth bass, heavy percussion and an overall production style that is new to Nas, not that it stops him from delivering both lyrically and rhythmically.

“Replace Me” sees two big name features, as Houston based Don Toliver delivers a beautiful and catchy chorus while Detroit based Big Sean serves as a great lyrical compliment to Nas. Nas details a love interest from his past, and spits a profound line to end his verse, stating “Only thing worse than being alone is wishin’ you were.” Big Sean’s verse sees him excel at his use of wordplay and punchlines, and closes his verse with an especially lyrical line, as he raps “I never gave you infidelity or tried to wreck your credibility / I’m not your ex, I’m your ecstasy / Methamphetamines, ain’t no better me.” Nas uses the next track to continue to bring light to women, and does it over a tender and melodic beat. Nas raps, “Single mothers, my heart’s bleeding for you / These coward men, that were beating on you,” and continues, “Hold your head up, don’t take that shit, run away from it / I shoulda ran away myself, the amount of pain I was dealt / And I’m a man, my job is to help / Single parent home, came up, now the man is grown,” as he pours his emotions onto the track for all to hear. Nas closes his verse by revealing the psychological toll of growing up in poverty, as he raps, “Sometimes witnessin’ the most foulest things would arouse us / We became numb like pure ‘caine on the tongue / To the pains from economical strains.” The chorus rings through the song, as Nas declares in the chorus, “And our future queens, y’all the strongest ones / May God gives strength to women who lost their sons / I give all I have ’til the war is won / We’re nothing without our women,” before Chicago trap rapper Lil Durk takes his turn on the beat. Durk’s auto-tune heavy, trap style serves as a great contrast to Nas, and his lyrics are able to continue to carry the weight of the track, as he raps, “Black lives matter, I’m for real, it do matter / Black-on-black crime, they still do it to whoever / Talking to the trenches, we just gotta do better / He think he Martin Luther, but he tryna be a shooter.” The gritty detail of both Nas’ and Durk’s reality in their respective cities of New York and Chicago paint a troubled picture, but both declare their steadfast approach to fight for the improvement of their communities and the ending of black-on-black violence.  

Nas recruits LA rapper, singer and drummer Anderson .Paak on “All Bad” to deliver over production that is reminiscent of .Paak’s production style. Both artists reveal their disappointments that they have both felt in their personal lives with women, as Nas raps, “Wasn’t meant for me, fuck it, we ain’t agree on no subject / We look good together when we was out in the public.” .Paak continues, as he raps on his verse, “I kinda like it when I’m far from you lately / I’m kinda fed up with the bullshit you do.” Nas then pairs with legendary DJ Brucie B. on “The Definition” to take aim at the government, as he criticizes its infringement on privacy, treatment of minorities, mass incarceration and constant neglect to recognize global warming. Nas’ verse, and arguably the entire album can be summarized in his line at the end of the verse, “Sun rising but they want us to stay in the dark,” a reflection of Nas’ work to continue to educate those who are unaware of the practices of the American government. Nas’ desire to empower black communities and women is evident throughout the album, and it is on “The Definition” that he identifies the state as the main barrier of achieving true equality and unity, which he calls “King’s Disease.”

The next track, “Full Circle,” sees Nas reuniting with his hip hop group from the 1990’s, The Firm, which consist of AZ, Foxy Brown and Cormega. The production style is more of a west coast feel, as bouncy percussion and a synth bass melody allow for another contrast of style. While in the past The Firm would brag about their exploits with women, their more mature, introspective selves see them reflect on their previous actions and look to improve upon themselves. AZ looks back on his prior treatment of women, as he raps, “Young then, obsessed in the bubble about it / Took advantage if a woman allowed it / One of the foulest, some would say I was childish, money-driven / Mischievous, I perceived it as livin’, gifts and ribbons,” indicating his shift in perspective. Cormega similarly admits that he was “Oblivious to beauty inside truly defines,” as he raps, “Thinking my girl was my possession, I stand corrected / It takes understanding and affection / Time is money, I need growth for my investment.” Foxy Brown uses her verse to boast her femininity, as she raps, “First lady, nigga, Bonnie for real / Pussy power like Tasha pushed Tommy to kill / Black Sheba, Philipp Plein on a sneaker / Low in a two-seater, bitch, I spits ether.” Dr. Dre makes an appearance on the outro of the track, paying tribute and praising the greatness of Nas and The Firm.

“10 Points” sees another stylistic approach on the production, as Hit-Boy employed a heavy use of synths in the bass and horns in the melody over a steady beat. Nas details the impact that his troubling childhood still has on him today, as he raps, “Still coping and dealing with my environment as a kid / I trust no one today because what someone in my past did.” Nas once again looks to empower black men and women on the track, as he notes the impact he has had on his own community, rapping “Especially now, I don’t expect you to bow, but stand / Creating jobs, named my venture from after the land / I came from, that’s unheard of / A hood that’s known for murder now doing mergers.” Nas uses his last verse to give out universal advice to any that need, as he raps, “They hardly happy for you, keep doing what you do / You can’t please everybody, and not everybody is you / Don’t try to force a square peg in a round circle, that shit’ll hurt you / Don’t try to fit in either, you’re better off with neither,” as well as, “Stop hangin’ on to childhood trauma, it defeats us / Our challenge is holding ourselves back, I hope you felt that.” Nas continues his lyrical deliverance over a beat featuring the use of horns and synths on “The Cure,” as he details his own struggle of continuing to stay true to himself despite changing times and desires. “The markets see you as a old-ass artist / The McCartneys live past the Lennons, but Lennon’s the hardest / Stay on your path, stay on your craft / They just want you to switch your lanes up so they can hate on your ass,” Nas raps before going on to once again uplift women, rapping “Cause I seen the greats do it with a great queen / What these kings have in common? They had women who solid.” After paying tribute to Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle as a guitar solo begins to shred over the production, the beat switches up to a faster, soulful type beat. Nas begins the victory lap over his album, but still continues to deliver strong lyrics, rapping “We looked at robbin’ as a way of resolving our problems / My moms cooked food, but some of my niggas was starving / And whatever they was down to do, I was with ’em regardless / Turns out I was hungry and was hittin’ the hardest.” The victory laps continues through the last track of the album, as Brooklyn drill rapper Fivio Foreign and Harlem based A$AP Ferg hop on to provide stylistic contrasts to Nas. While the production on “Spicy” doesn’t hit as hard as it perhaps should for artists like Fivio and Ferg, the lyrics are as pungent as ever, and the use of 808s continue to provide a fresh sound for Nas to rap over. Fivio proves his ability as an artist to rap over a non-drill beat while still staying true to his sound, while Ferg provides his classic energy and intensity to the track.

It would be enough if this album delivered lyrically while providing fresh production styles for Nas. But Nas is always one to go above and beyond, and his relentless passion to bring light to communities of color and to women is amazingly inspirational, and its a bonus that Nas is able to do so through thought provoking lyrics over fresh production. The features are able to add unique rapping styles that Nas usually doesn’t pair with while still maintaining the potency of the lyrics, and the message that Nas aimed to project rings throughout the entirety of the album. Nas’ identification of the “King’s Disease” is as important a message as anything else in 2020, and as the election comes closer and closer, it is artists like Nas that have the power to educate people about the government’s suppression of black communities across the country.

Nas began his career with the groundbreaking Illmatic in 1994. Twenty six years later, Nas is still providing captivating and relevant lyrics that people need to hear. This time around sees a fresh take on the production and a unique cast of features, but the messages that Nas is projecting are as important now as they have ever been.

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