Nas returns once more with Hit-Boy for “King’s Disease III”, following an upward trajectory from “King’s Disease”, “King’s Disease II” and last year’s “Magic” for what may well be the best of the bunch. His continued infatuation with monarchical status and sitting on the throne of hip-hop – very much a New York trait – runs throughout this latest album whilst demonstrating why Nas can be considered the king of rap. The status of a king in modern society is at odds with the romanticized stories of historical warriors reigning over their civilians with victories on the battlefield. The coronation of King Charles III following Queen Elizabeth II’s death will still be a global event in 2023 and a moment for the history books, but the throne itself and its displays of wealth run parallel to Nas and today’s hip-hop scene. Both have historical merit, impacted subsequent generations, and have had their relevancy questioned (ironically by a Brit).
Nas has wrestled with various iconic figures of history throughout his career: whether it be Pablo Escobar on 1996’s “It Was Written”, Nostradamus on 1999’s “Nastradamus” or Jesus Christ on 2002’s “God’s Son”, he has shown that these influential characters all feed into what makes Nas this messiah-like artist that hip-hop fans continue to champion as the street’s disciple. His career deserves more credit than it probably receives, likely because of a period in the mid-2000s whereby albums centered around controversial statements like “Hip Hop Is Dead” or “N*****”, and this growing narrative that Nas couldn’t select good enough beats. A lengthy rivalry with Jay-Z, which over time has shown Jay-Z’s petty (or jealous?) side for releasing music immediately after Nas to steal his glory. The two of them have a Game of Thrones-style relationship which has all revolved around this supposed throne where New York’s greatest emcee resides. The Brooklyn emcee similarly cites himself as Jehova, while releasing albums with regal titles such as 2006’s “Kingdom Come”, 2010’s “Watch the Throne” or even 2013’s “Magna Carta, Holy Grail”. The two of them are synonymous with the title of king, both chosen ones inheriting the title from Rakim and Biggie, with Nas being declared the golden child in the early 90s, whereas Jay-Z’s reputation felt more self-appointed – although this continues to divide fans.
It’s bad form to bang on about Jay-Z in a Nas review, but it feels like the elephant in the room each time one of them drops music. The beef may be over, yet it was lines from Nas mentioning Jay on the track “Thun” that drew much of the attention when “King’s Disease 3” dropped a few weeks back. There’s this sense that Nas wouldn’t have made these cheeky jibes a few years ago, because Nas sounds like he’s regained his confidence as the king once more. He sounds like the king. He’s in that “Ether” mindset once more – not necessarily as vicious, but simply sounding like he’s willing to name names and it feels like he’s genuinely having fun with his writing. Nothing exemplifies this better than “Beef”, with Nas reaching into his book of rhymes for another excellent concept track. The beat is about as Queensbridge as it gets – proper Mobb Deep material – as he plays the role of beef in various situations.
Naming names remains a theme throughout, particularly with kings. Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Mary J Blige have all been heralded as kings or queens, and Nas even reminds listeners that ever since his debut “Illmatic”, he was crowned the best lyricist. He even shouts out his favorite artists on “First Time”, as he talks about how the first time you hear an artist can impact listeners more than perhaps people talk about. “Once a Man, Twice a Child” is a slick take on the whole cycle in life where you return to being looked after, wearing diapers, and sipping on a bottle once you’re old, just like you did as a baby.
The first track is littered with important lines documenting his career, stating fans were “shocked by his growth” and how he’s wrestled with being “underground and overground”. This is an album built around growth just as much as it is about being grown, and it sticks out in a field of middle-aged rappers continuing to glorify decades-old drug deals. “Legit” demonstrates a paternal-like stance, warning others to simply be careful with a comforting proudness that just makes you want to smile. Amongst the dope beats and sharp rapping, that’s what my takeaway from “King’s Disease 3” is – just sat here with a big smile on my face. Long-term fans have sat through the ups and downs of arguably the most naturally gifted emcee of his generation, and hearing Nas tear it up over the last few records with a producer that fits him like a glove – it’s magic. More importantly, there’s this reborn, intangible quality to Nas’ performances that let you in where few elite rappers still can – Jay, Em, Wayne, Drake- they lack the everyman quality Nas possesses that allows him to connect with the listener.
Comparing Hit-Boy to Quincy Jones is certainly overblown, but given Jones crafted Jackson’s best run in the mid-80s, there are some parallels to how Nas currently feels. Every king has a regent and Hit-Boy is Nas’. Confidence levels aren’t just through the roof with Nas, but Hit-Boy too. Versatility and variety are a constant, all wrapped up in a warm early 2000s aesthetic that’s modern without being devoid of soul. One of my gripes with 2004’s “Street’s Disciple” and large chunks of “I Am…” was how they possessed a hollowness to their production, where “Stillmatic” and “God’s Son” didn’t. Nas even acknowledges fans’ demands for the DJ Premier album promised in 2005, whilst simultaneously proving he’s found his new Premier (as Common once said). Even Pete Rock catches a stray on “30”, in relation to his recent lawsuit filed against Nas over “The World Is Yours” which feels like a perfect metaphor for any jaded 90s heads stuck in the past. It even had Soul Brother #1 threatening to leave social media – king behavior right there.
The Game would be proud of the namedrops going on here, ranging from Maya Angelou and Amerie to John Fitzgerald and Dru Hill. He is name-dropping the celebrities you’d expect a 49-year-old to, which makes the use of lit on “Reminisce” all the more jarring – I still can’t adjust to hearing older emcees adopting terms associated with teenagers, as it reminds me of Run-DMC suddenly using the n-word in the early 1990s. It feels forced and a fashionable inclusion rather than part of the artist’s natural lexicon. “WTF SMH” is similarly hard to stomach, with one of the weaker productions firstly utilizing a Timbaland-like instrumental and then a drumless soul loop. “King’s Disease 3” isn’t without its flaws, but they are few and far between. The frequent beat-switching feels surprisingly natural, almost like the duo is rubbing critics’ noses in it for past criticisms of Nas’ production.
For me, Nas is hip-hop distilled. Flirtations with pop ultimately grounded him, while battles, storytelling, and New York itself helped define him. From Large Professor to Hit-Boy, thirty years out of hip-hop’s fifty as a genre only adds to the fuel that Nas is the greatest of all time. The irony of records called “King’s Disease” showcasing him reinvigorated and re-energized, the very opposite of what a king’s disease is, isn’t lost on this writer. “Most of us catch it one time or another” he recites on “Ghetto Reporter”.
Most of us aren’t kings, Nas.