It’s been a few months now since Nas dropped his final album with Hit-Boy – “Magic 3”. As soon as I hit ‘publish’ on the Magic 2 review in September, Nas went and dropped an even better album the very next day, so I’ve been simultaneously reluctant to write this, and secretly enthused to see what Nas will do next. He’s been quiet for a bit, so let’s do this! First things first, “Magic 3” puts his latest run (2021-2023) in contention with his previous prime periods (1994-1996, 2001-2003), yeah I said it. Considering this is Nas’ most productive period, six albums in three years, that’s one every, let’s say two, and none of them shits were doo. One was ‘ehhh’ (“King’s Disease”), and the others were all dope but not quite “Illmatic”, that’s a five dope album every six-year average, and that’s so… impressive actually! The fact that “Magic 3” might be the best of the bunch only highlights how good Nas still is, as he enters his fifties. This run doesn’t quite have a classic in it, in the same way, that MF Doom’s 2003-2005 did, or Lil’ Wayne’s mixtape output from 2004-2006 does, but it does retain more memorability than recent lyricists that are highly productive. Your Ransoms, Estee Nacks, or 38 Speshs – and that’s primarily down to Nas continuing to prove his storytelling chops operate on a higher level.

Hit-Boy, despite being on fine form throughout these albums, doesn’t come close to the great runs of RZA (1993-1995) or DJ Premier (1992-1994), and if anything, his relentless output seems to benefit from the inorganic style that has proved more divisive with some Nas fans. I don’t sit in that camp – Hit-Boy is firing on all cylinders throughout “Magic 3” and it’s my favorite set of instrumentals he’s provided for Nas.

“Magic 3” has a slower start than previous efforts, but gets stronger with each song. The opener “Fever” is playful, energizing, and celebratory, interspersing his classic “Represent” into the hook as he reminds us how hip-hop helped make him. One of my favorite aspects of Hit-Boy’s production is his ability to switch the beat up. The one on “TSK” is ridiculous, and it’s let down by an awkward flow adopted by Nas (and includes an iffy Trump remark). It’s not until “I Love This Feeling” that the album becomes something special:

“It’s your monthly subscription to the slums edition
The new It Was Written
Get your hard copies of Blockology
Comin’ from the one who lived in a bowl for goldfish
I’ll never sell my soul, just evolve shock rap
That what you never been told shit
Cold part, Illmatic all the way through that episode of Ozark
I think that’s harder than if I had co-starred
A ghetto symphony, I’m Chief Keef Cozart mixed with Mozart
It’s ill when you get bags for your own art
Million-dollar sync for Al Jarreau of rap
But they ain’t understand it when it dropped, yo
How cold is that?
They askin’ if I’m ever gon’ be over rap
But I left a few times, just never told you that
Amassing digital assets
No fiscal year kick-backs, yeah, we cashin’
Physical money, think different, we outlast ’em
We out-class ’em, they made it easy to pass ’em
I love this feelin’

My favorite thing about Nas in 2023 is his self-awareness. There was a time when it felt like there was a disconnect between fans and Nas, whereby fans felt that he was making poor decisions, particularly regarding his beat selection. Citing Ozark episodes where his music plays, or shouting out album contributors like the days of liner notes in CD sleeves – it’s hard not to like Nas outside of his supreme rapping ability. For die-hard fans, there’s even the trend of purposeful mispronunciation of one word on every project. Here it’s acquisition, on “King’s Disease” it was perforation.

Unlike the weak 50 Cent verse on “Office Hours” earlier this year, Weezy understands the assignment. It’s a comically lighthearted set of simile-heavy rhymes, but the bragging is delivered in jest (“these rappers have to catch up like Heinz”) and it just reminds listeners how effective Lil’ Wayne can be at lightening the mood. “Pretty Young Girl” may not feature Diddy, but it contains a beat that is certainly obscene. Snares will have heads snapping from listeners’ necks, along with vivid lines that place the listener right into Nas’ mindset. I love the idea of Nas screening potential partners by how they react to listening to Biggie – the sort of thing I would do. And that’s where Nas continues to connect with his fans in ways that other greats rarely do.  

There is usually a song on each Nas album dedicated to women in some way or other, and after fawning over beauty he is playing the defensive older gentleman dubious of the company his female friends keep (“Based on True Events Pt. 1”). For a second I thought this was about Bill Murray (after Kelis began dating the droopy-faced Ghostbuster), and I’m going to keep believing this version of events because imagining Nas with the Bravehearts squatting behind a bush, akin to paparazzin in the background of a Lost in Translation scene, is priceless. They were only dating for two months but it’s a fun diversion, particularly as Nas isn’t afraid to gloat about his bachelor lifestyle these days. A man of his vintage sharing how he is seeing “two women same city” manages to avoid the image of an icky old man sitting in the strip club, or the bitter divorced dad spewing hate.

Nas retains a classiness to his raps, and his music overall. “Japanese Soul Bar” again reinforces this, as do the references to jazz musicians, there is a formal, neat elegance to go with the street eloquence. The decision to throw in a rare first interview with Rap Pages’ Elliott Wilson at the end is a nice treat for fans too. Hearing his thoughts on artificial intelligence on “Speechless Pt. 2”, as an artist, was also welcome, without being out of touch. I can see certain benefits of AI (I used some later in this review) but using it to create art just baffles me, and it leaves Nas lost for words too. It’s probably the closest thing to a concept track (which usually revolves around time) as he states he’s lost for words and then pauses before resuming his rap. “Jodeci Member” is another standout, and Nas’ performance is like it’s 1996 again. Words weave together so fluidly as Hit-Boy combines a chest-out, head-up violin loop with some grown-man situation rap that reaffirms his talent for transporting the listener via precise descriptions.

“Try me like stayin’ off your phone with some real shit goin’ on
Try me like some threads in the fittin’ room
Try me like puttin’ new art on the wall in the living room
Saturday morning vacuum, tryin’ out a new rap tune

There’s plenty of reflection on “Magic 3”, with many songs referencing friends and colleagues who have passed away. Nas thinks about how lucky he is, considering his idols like T La Rock and Kool G Rap didn’t get rich or reap the platinum albums that they perhaps warranted. I think Nas knows this is his best album next to KD3, as he references the gold bars on that album’s artwork, and the themes on “Magic 3” are very similar – particularly those surrounding time and an added emphasis on women.

Lyrical Analysis

I wanted to explore this element of growth in Nas, by comparing his first six albums with his last six. This involved collating all of Nas’ verses from these records and analyzing how his language has changed over the years. The albums in question are:

  • “Illmatic” (1994)
  • “It Was Written” (1996)
  • “I Am…” “Nastradamus” (1999)
  • “Stillmatic” (2001)
  • “God’s Son”, “Lost Tapes” (2002)
  • “King’s Disease” (2020)
  • “King’s Disease 2”, “Magic” (2021)
  • “King’s Disease 3” (2022)
  • “Magic 2”, “Magic 3” (2023)

I included “Lost Tapes” too as it was songs from that first period. Some interesting themes arise from looking at the rhymes, particularly through topic modeling techniques (which I did recently with Doja Cat’s catalog). In the four years he dropped these most recent six albums, it took him nearly 7 years to reach that number of words (halfway through “Stillmatic”) from his earlier solo releases, which highlights both how productive he’s been with Hit-Boy, and how differently the industry is when it comes to the rollout of a new album. 2% of Nas’ rhymes during 1994-2002 were curses; this dropped to 1% in his late forties. It’s not a surprise, considering his age and the era, but Nas was cursing after every 34th word on “It Was Written” (38th on his two 1999 releases), this dropped right down to every 118th in 2023. He’s not just keeping it cleaner, but he’s become less provocative, and more reflective, specifically relating to the concept of time.

Excluding stop words, I grouped the most commonly used words into six topics through the use of ‘bag of words’ vectorizing in Python. This allows text to be assigned numerical values based on how often words are used, and then they can be grouped in a matrix, ready for analysis. I used artificial intelligence to assist me in this exercise, as it can be quite manual and open to interpretation. For example, I asked ChatGPT to assign a word to “king”, “son”, “god”, and “peace” and it came up with “regal”, which certainly covers the term “king”, but after re-prompting the tool, it suggested “majestic”, which I think sums up more of those words used. Nas uses most of these words in 2020’s “King’s Disease”, where he was following the regal schtick more.

Topic #1: im shit dont aint nas see run black thats time
Topic #2: niggas nigga shit real bitch man fuck yall money life
Topic #3: love us want war hood trust thugs life gotta take
Topic #4: new world york im every old mine mind life rappers
Topic #5: girl wanna young first ghetto time baby ill little youre
Topic #6: king son kings god going yall thats give lets peace

Topic #1 time
Topic #2 provocative
Topic #3 drama 
Topic #4 wisdom
Topic #5 innocence
Topic #6 majestic

This takes some experimentation, but I think these terms accurately summarize the type of songs Nas writes. The example below indicates that “New York State of Mind” is primarily described as ‘provocative’ and ‘wisdom’, considering it has a healthy (or unhealthy!) amount of swearing, contains boastful language, but also possesses insightful language from Nas that is contemplative and “wise”.

These scores are then rounded up or down to 0s and 1s. “New York State of Mind” (in this example) is 33% wisdom, 19% provocative, 8% time etc. From here, we can see where Nas has shifted his pen between albums. When Nas titled his 2014 film “Time Is Illmatic”, he wasn’t necessarily talking about his debut, but his growing interest in the concept of time. It’s all over every one of his albums (most obviously in concept songs like “Rewind” and “Motion”, and the below chart proves this. “Magic 3” is more themed around innocence (or romance – words like baby, girl, and young), similar to “God’s Son” and “Lost Tapes”; “Magic 3” definitely has harder beats on these tracks, compared to songs like “Hey Nas” and “Dance”, and the way he is writing celebratory rhymes about women ties into that period when Nas was talking about his mother’s battle with cancer. Something he continues to reflect on, as he is now a similar age to his mother when she passed.

But what of these so-called “primes” in Nas’ career? I’d need to expand the number of topics beyond six, to investigate whether there are any other themes currently ignored, but it’s interesting to see “wisdom” hasn’t changed since 1994. When it was seemingly omitted, it was due to a bump in “time” (“KD2”, “Magic 2”). He was also slightly more interested in the whole ‘king’ concept when he was fighting for the throne on “Stillmatic” and “God’s Son” than he was on “KD2”, “KD3” or any “Magic” record. At some point I’ll fill in the rest of Nas’ career, to see whether these prime periods are completely accurate, but as a starting point, this at least proves one of Nas’ lyrics correct – he’s the opposite of Doja Cat, thematically at least.

Enough of pissing about with lyric data though, we all know Nas is a top-tier lyricist and rhyme writer. “Magic 3” continues to strengthen the argument for Nas as the GOAT and his legions of fans who appreciate his output in 2023 will clearly agree with this take. If anyone has celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip-hop correctly, it’s Nasir Jones. The man himself states on the album closer “1-800-Nas&Hit” that his collaboration with Hit-Boy succeeds thanks to a natural chemistry between the two, but it’s crucial that before this run begins to lose some of its effect, momentum, and appeal, it might be the right time for the duo to take a break. “Magic 3” is easily my most played album of the year, it’s brilliant and improves each time I listen. These are albums to sit with, to study, and to admire, and while he’s revisiting themes he’s explored on other recent projects, it’s no less enjoyable for it.

Nas :: Magic 3
9Overall Score