Nas decreed on his previous release that we would receive King’s Disease III. On the new installment in this trilogy and his 15th album, he returns to affirm his status as one of hip-hop’s all-time greats, his role within hip-hop and the wisdom he feels he can impart onto younger generations. Nas spends most of this album reflecting on his youth and rise to superstardom, the naïveté of new artists and the ever-present significance that mortality holds over all of us.
Hit-Boy returns to helm the entirety of production. The album opens strong with “Ghetto Reporter,” which opens with a sample of comedian Richard Pryor’s “Just Us” over a series of low tones building into a phenomenal piano- and bass-driven boom-bap melody. Nas raps about how he’s transcended hip-hop, largely due to the commercialized nature of mainstream music being micromanaged to appeal to larger audiences. He claims he’s become simultaneously “underground” and “overground” as he speaks to the realities that those looking to profit off his music would likely prefer he didn’t.
“Legit” follows suit with a sample from the film “The Five Heartbeats.” Nas openly reflects of the necessity—and dangers—of taking risks in the streets and in the music industry. He’s amazed about the success he’s attained as a result. The third track “Thun” samples iconic diss track “The Bridge is Over” by New York’s Boogie Down Productions, where Nas observes the continued prominence of infighting and violence in hip-hop.
He even raps about the way grudges can resolve and take on an ironic second life, specifically citing his old feud with Jay-Z. “No beef or rivals, they playin’ Ether on TIDAL/ Brothers can do anythin’, when they decide to/ In a Range Rover, dissectin’ bars from Take Over/ Sometimes I text Hova … this ain’t over’ laughin’,” Nas raps.
“Michael & Quincy” delivers another solid boom-bap cut-up that kicks off with light scratches. Nas talks about how he’s managed to maintain his sense of self-confidence from the streets to the stage. That’s followed by “30.” The latter has an orchestral opening that transitions into a tremolo and organ-driven trap instrumental. The song title references the 30th anniversary of Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, and how the album launched him to superstardom.
The bright, synth-driven “Hood2Hood” is about communities bonding together and taking care of their own. The album’s best-produced song is easily “Recession Proof,” which makes the most out of very little with a dynamic, rumbling bass melody that’s paired with rattling snares. Nas flexes his muscles as a storyteller, discussing how he survived life in the hood during his youth. It’s almost like this is a lost track. It would’ve been right at home on his first release.
The rapper is self-critical on “Serious Interlude,” where he discusses a tryst he had with a committed woman and feelings of jealousy were brought up. But it’s quickly followed with the ego-boosting breaks of “I’m On Fire,” where Nas tells everyone what we already know: Nobody is ever going to match his songwriting ability. “WTF SMH” feels like a little bit of a lull, with Nas complaining about other MCs who’re prone to antics and outrageous behavior getting more attention than their music. It’s an odd grievance for one of the biggest names in hip-hop, but it’s a fair point about the habits of flashy attention-seekers.
“Once a Man, Twice a Child” is about the fragility of life. Nas examines how as we get older, we regress to a state of vulnerability comparable to that of early childhood. We can’t drink or party the same way. “Get Light” and “First Time” then focus on Nas’ early career. The former highlights the stark contrast he experienced growing up in the hood to living the big life. The latter looks at his early work through the lens of a first-time listener, transposed against Nas’ own experience hearing another prominent rapper and his peers make their big breaks.
The most poignant part of the album arrives with “Beef,” where Nas takes on the role of conflict itself. He lays bear the bloody battles of history with all their hideousness, and highlights the hubris, vindictiveness and selfishness that’s led people to kill each other. The incredibly sobering track is directly followed by “Don’t Shoot”—a cry for people to stop choosing violence. Nas pleads with listeners to reconsider the lengths to which we will go to harm those who harm us. Compassion is the better path forward, he concludes, while violence will only beget more violence.
The album closes with bonus track “‘Til My Last Breath,” where Nas reflects on the challenges he faced in making music in different eras. From the limitations of the socioeconomic standards he was subject to in his youth to the reactive and volatile culture war that persists today—Nas will continue to rap regardless.
Follow hip-hop writer Tim Hoffman at Twitter.com/hipsterp0tamus.