‘King’s Disease’: Nas Adapts His Classic Style to the Present Moment
In 1994, Nas released the groundbreaking “Illmatic,” and instantly made hip-hop history. His unique blend of narrative detail and street wisdom introduced an unprecedented grit and gravitas that carried hip-hop into the future. Since then, he has generally found a lukewarm reception, with scattered high points like 2011’s “Stillmatic.” In 2018, he delivered the Kanye West-produced “Nassir,” a 7-song album which recalled past glories, but came off as a bit of a tease. Last year, saw “The Lost Tapes 2,” a second collection of outtakes that offered plenty to enjoy, as far as outtake records go. Now, he returns with his first proper album in eight years, “King’s Disease.” The lyrics alternate between socially conscious fare fit for the present moment and autobiographical content that celebrates Nas’ longevity and status in the hip-hop world, while the beats update his classic sounds, and the guest appearances offer both nostalgia and contemporary relevance.
The title track places Nas over a soul sample, for a similar sound to that of 2018’s “Nasir.” He begins, “I made the fade famous, the chain famous.” While it’s hardly believable that he made the chain famous, he might deserve some credit for the first part, as you can find a picture of Drake with the exact same “half-moon caesar” hairstyle decades after Nas first sported it. Nas has called himself a “king” for ages, with a strain of bragaddocio that makes most hip-hop look timid, and now he describes any afflictions that follow success as the “king’s disease,” referring to his falling out with ex-wife Kelis, sizing up other rappers without mentioning names, and generally running through nonsequiturs, giving dubious history lessons along the way, and presenting a rather disjointed flow with all his usual gusto.
It gets real on “Blue Benz.” Nas generally sticks to beats that conjure the same spirit of his most classic work, even if subtly updated for the times. Such is the case here, and Nas is at his most narrative, describing an earlier era in detail, with allusions to the Tunnel nightclub in NYC. The real thrill comes upon a midsong beat change, when Nas settles into a zenlike state, telling a story about a madam, of sorts, who drove a blue Benz. As on the opener, he doesn’t actually tell a story as much as he hints at one. “Car #85” sounds appropriately retro, considering the subject matter. Nas certainly selects effective signifiers of hip-hop culture during a certain period. “Car #85” was a luxury car service, favored by urban New Yorkers who were trying to flex. The beat is perfectly dated, with its early ‘90s drum machines and R&B stylings. Charlie Wilson is featured, but stays on backup duties, providing ambient melisma to set the mood.
The same musical aesthetic takes an upbeat turn on lead single “Ultra Black.” Three minutes and change of black pride, it’s a relevant statement for the times. In a key moment, Nas raps, “Rhythm and blues, pop, rock to soul to jazz,” whereupon keyboards play a jazzy fill, acknowledging the comprehensive musical heritage that American owes to its black population. He refers to model Grace Jones, ‘70s sitcom “Sanford & Son” and films like “Superfly,” the African American “Essence Fest,” African black soap, Cash Money, and more. One of the most striking lines is Nas’ diss of Doja Cat, when he describes himself as “the opposite of Doja Cat.” This is a reference to Doja’s “Dindu Nuffin,” a jokey, harmless, nursery rhyme-like song that certain imaginative souls have somehow interpreted as an advocation of police brutality. This is a cheap shot from Nas, and it doesn’t hold much weight. Luckily, Nas makes up for it with humorous lines like “Hall & Oates, I can’t go for that,” expressing his distaste for the watered-down R&B of that group’s 1981 hit “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do.)”
It has been 27 years since 1993’s “Illmatic,” a fact that Nas celebrates in “27 Summers.” For the first time, he raps over a trap beat, and there couldn’t be a better occasion for it, as his unflinching delivery over music that reflects the moment demonstrates his perseverance over the years. He refers to his 2014 documentary “Time Is Illmatic,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, rapping about “Premier movies with my man De Niro,” and goes on to shout out to Mass Appeal, Dave East, his managers, and more. “Replace Me” features a spirited Auto-tune hook from Don Toliver and a verse from Big Sean, whose tone and timbre provide an effective foil for Nas’. The three take turns asserting their value upon the dissolution of a romantic relationship, a gesture that ultimately somewhat defeats its purpose, seeming a bit spiteful and needy.
Nas has a long history of taking up relevant social causes, and on “Til the War Is Won,” he delves into a pressing issue, the fractured nature of the black family in today’s America. He dissects the condition, mentioning the absence of father figures, and exalting brave single mothers. Lil Durk’s feature makes for a striking juxtaposition, as his free-flowing, melodic, Auto-tune exercises come in sharp contrast to Nas’ classic New York flow. Over a beat that bridges the gap between eras, Nas and Dirk manage to pull it off without sounding forced, giving a sense of a wise veteran passing the baton.
Anderson .Paak adds plenty of personality to any track he touches, and “All Bad” is no exception. In keeping with Paak’s timeless soulful stylings, Nas trades in his typical chosen beatwork for an organic, funky drumbeat. Paak carries the track with his free-spirited idiosyncrasies, balancing Nas’ somber lamentation about a relationship gone sour. There is speculation about the song referring to Nas’ stint with Nicki Minaj. At any rate, Nas swings back to social material on “The Definition,” on which he searches for meaning regarding the status of black people in America today. He talks about phone tapping, criticizes both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, and at one point exclaims, “And what the fuck is up with Gayle King?”
A major highlight is “Full Circle,” which reunites Nas with the Firm, a group first formed on the track “Affirmative Action” from Nas’ 1996 album “It Was Written.” The entourage, consisting of AZ, Cormega, and Foxy Brown, disbanded after a single self-titled album, and finally makes a stunning return. AZ’s verse will send shivers to longterm fans, as his voice alongside Nas’ takes us back to the days of classic “Illmatic” cut “Life’s a Bitch.” Cormega, who never made it onto the Firm’s album due to incarceration, drops a pointed verse, and Foxy Brown outshines everyone with her distinctive, husky voice reappearing after all these years. The outro features none other than Dr. Dre, at his most gruff and aggressive, rounding off a monumental hip-hop meeting of minds.
The classic beats that nod to golden era sensibilities continue on “10 Points,” with a brassy boom bap backdrop. The song was written a day that LeBron James scored “10 points,” and Nas spins this into a statement about black celebrities that aren’t given enough credit for giving back to the community, commenting, “Michael Jordan gives back and you didn’t know it / Like LeBron does, but it’s just seldomly shown.” Finally, Nas takes on a beat fittingly majestic for all the “king” talk that floods the album. On “The Cure,” he looks back on his career, and challenges criticisms leveled at him. When he complains, “The markets see you as an old-ass artist,” he mentions an issue that he has already demonstrated he is above, through the various songs that proudly celebrate earlier eras. There’s a magic moment when Nas commands, “Roll the Credits,” prompting a beat change, and finishing the track off on top form, in a raging retrospective that, of course, ends up with him repping his Queensbridge projects
There is a point on “The Definition” when Nas gets explicit about the “King’s Disease.” He elaborates, “Also known as rich man disease / You ain’t gotta be rich to get it / Just doing too much, you’ll get it.” This is already a slick way of turning one’s problems into an attribute. As B.I.G. insisted, “more money, more problems,” etc. Nas continues, however, to add, “Gout, uric acid levels up high.” “King’s Disease” has traditionally referred to gout, the inflammatory arthritis characterized by swollen joints. The moniker derives from a correlation between the condition and the consumption of rich foods and alcohol. Somehow, Nas has turned this illness into bragging rights for a whole album. Let’s hear it for hip-hop. Whatever the premise, Nas offers a set of tracks that will receive a warm welcome from fans. His flow is as sharp and incisive as ever, while his beats play to his signature sound, while giving them a contemporary spin. Nas tackles social topics of today with his usual lyrical flair, and surveys decades of hip-hop history with an insider authenticity that makes for a satisfying, comprehensive listen.
“King’s Disease” releases Aug. 21 on Apple Music.