Nas Continues His Grammy-Winning Collaboration With Hit-Boy on ‘King’s Disease II’

It’s hard not to look at Nas’ Grammy win last year for “King’s Disease” as a career win rather than individual recognition of what is a very good record, the musical equivalent of Martin Scorsese winning the Best Director Oscar for “The Departed” instead of “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” or five or six other films. Notwithstanding the Grammys’ consistently slow and short-sighted recognition of rap music and its luminaries, Nasir Jones has released several bona fide classics that were quite possibly more worthy but in some cases overlooked altogether. In any case, it’s clear that after earning his Grammy — or perhaps just being cooped up in the studio during the quarantine — he is reinvigorated as an artist and eager to produce new music. Reuniting with that record’s start-to-finish producer, Fontana, CA native Hit-Boy, Nas delivers “King’s Disease II,” and like its predecessor it strikes a skillful balance between the boom-bap origins of his career and the trap sound that dominates the industry, laced together with more of the intricate, thoughtful verses that made the rapper one of the genre’s greatest of all time.

Honestly, the biggest obstacle that Nas has faced throughout his career is that he seems uniquely indifferent to, or perhaps incapable of, consistently creating memorable hooks; there are verses on records like “…I Am” that weave spectacular narratives and explore complex ideas, and the reason they’re not permanently affixed to the hip-hop firmament is because people can’t remember the name of the songs in which they appeared. Having worked with Kanye West, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lil Wayne but also Selena Gomez and other pop stars, Hit-Boy has cultivated a pedigree that allows him to maximize the talents of the featured artist and nudge them towards something catchy without necessarily just catering to contemporary trends. 

Especially now that Nas is in his late 40s and has honestly proven more than he will ever need to, getting to listen to him explore his art with no pressure and no obligations is a privilege. So when he launches into this collection with “The Pressure,” it’s initially hard to tell the difference between the hook and the verse — but Hit-Boy guarantees there’s one there, and he draws it out with subtlety until it’s a dynamite punchline for his collaborator’s reflections on a world full of oppressive forces (“The pressure weigh a ton, it’s gettin too heavy / Had to inspire them again like I didn’t already”).

Nas’ ability to build steam with a verse is virtually unparalleled; his monotone delivery would be a deficiency if he weren’t so dexterous on the microphone and so specific with his observations. Recounting the true story of a One Nation album that was going to be recorded featuring both east and west coast rappers back in the late ‘90s to relieve escalating tensions, Nas offers honest remembrances on “Death Row East” of the attitudes in the moment as well as the more mature perspective of an artist who has experienced his share of beefs and know now better than to cook up more of them (“Back when Jungle told Pac, “It’s on” soon as we walk up out this / Picket signs, Outlawz outside the music hall / Bunch of ghetto superstars really down to lose it all”). Meanwhile the third track, “40 Side,” marks the first on the record that really feels more like a modern trap song, complete with booming 808s and Future ad-libbing, while Nas offers sage advice to a younger generation of Black men and women growing up in ghettos (the title refers to a specific one in his longtime Queensbridge ‘hood). 

He enlists Eminem and more excitingly, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith for “EPMD 2,” a remix for the track he recorded for “Judas and the Black Messiah” that gives guest stars an opportunity to flex on the microphone, as Sermon references current events (“Piece of shit, fly on your hеad like Mike Pence’s”) while they reclaim a sliver of ‘90s glory before Marshall Mathers inadvertently highlights the difference between wordplay and true lyricism with a nimble, fast-paced verse that isn’t about much. “Rare,” the line-drive first single, settles into a simmering midtempo groove that allows Nas to re-introduce himself, and then pivots into a different instrumental; it’s easier to see the first half of the song pouring out of car stereos than the second, but there’s much to love about a record that just shifts midway through to keep up with the artist rather than, say, some trend. Afterward, Boogie Wit da Hoodie and YG guest on “YKTV” over a trap beat that splits the difference between Nas’ own excursions into skeletal instrumentals, songs like “You Know My Style,” and the familiar lexicon of programmed drums and klaxons that form the backbone of most songs that end up on the radio.

Like with Eminem on “EPMD 2,” Boogie’s appearance exemplifies the differences not just between styles but generations of rappers; he slides all over the beat while Nas locks into the groove like a metronome, and without qualitatively comparing them, it speaks to how things have changed, be it in terms of creativity, discipline, or (possibly) laziness. That he’s able to recruit Lauryn Hill for a verse on “Nobody” probably speaks more to Nas’ gravitas in the industry even than their earlier collaboration on “If I Ruled The World,” but even way out of public practice, the fellow Grammy winner and absolute legend in her own right reminds listeners that intelligence, precision and purpose will always be valuable artistic commodities whether or not they’re commercial. The remaining guests spots are mostly understated affairs, including an appearance by Charlie Wilson on “No Phony Love” and one by Hit-Boy himself on “Composure,” and Nas deploys them wisely — almost as if to give himself a chance to catch his breath, yielding the mic as an act of generosity form an artist who controls it whenever it’s in his hand.

Hit-Boy’s samples pick up an interesting mantle with their obscurity, creating a sound that evokes MF Doom’s daffy, muzak-adjacent instrumentals which he then polishes to a luxurious, seamless sound — not quite yacht rap, but “Moments” certainly lives in the same neighborhood as “The Love Boat.” His sound captures so many elements from different musical eras of hip-hop, from the Just Blaze/ “Show Em What You Got” vibes of “My Bible” to “Count Me In,” which feels like it could be equally inspired by A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders” period and next-generation disciples like Dilated Peoples, to the coda of “Nas Is Good,” which uses sped-up soul samples like Kanye West just started producing.  All of it lends to Nas’ enduring, timeless appeal, which he again amplifies with lyrical content that dances around a number of identities — wise man, godfather, legend, and occasionally, gangster — but always offers substance and insight. Although slightly overlong at 15 tracks, “King’s Disease II” reminds listeners that ambition and hunger are not just appetites of the young; and whether or not the record earns him back-to-back Grammys, artistically speaking, it proves that Nas is as healthy as ever.

King’s Disease II” releases Aug. 6 on Apple Music.