In Review: Nas - King's Disease
Nas is an artist constantly on the run, pursued by his own larger-than-life shadow. Think of Nas and, nine times out of ten, you think of his early work – his 1994 debut album, Illmatic, in particular – and there’s a reason for that; those first few studio releases were era-defining. Nas’ nineties explosion exemplified the honesty, political awareness and blaze-fury of rap music at the time, but hip-hop’s changed since then, and Nas has consistently struggled to ride the cusp of that change… until now.
King’s Disease sees Nas at the middling age of forty-six years old, and comes with a peculiar sense of vertigo for anyone who came of age learning the lyrics to 'Life’s a Bitch', 'If I Ruled the World', or 'Made You Look'. The pointed, youthful aggression that defines Nas is stripped away, and, in its place, comes sombre reflection and even a strange sense of tragic absolution. We may not have asked for one of New York’s rarest poets to put a mid-life crisis to music, but, in part, that’s what we got and it’s genuinely arresting.
“What’s in a name!? What’s in a name!?” Nas asks the listener in his song 'The Cure', and so continues the same vein of existential introspection, “the markets see you as an old-ass artist…” he says, “The McCartneys live past the Lennons, but Lennon's the hardest…” Not since 1994 has the Queens rapper spoken with such sincerity. It’s intensely sad given the context of Nas’ deceased contemporaries, many of which went the same way as the Beatles frontman. It’s as if Nas is asking you, “should it’ve been me? If it was me, would my legacy stand taller?” You want to reach out through the music and comfort him.
Musically the album has held the line; it sounds current – for the most part – and hasn’t relinquished the rapper’s trademark jazz inflections. Nas (full name Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) was the sun of jazz musician Olu Dara and grew up in New York City, whose streets are steeped in the jazz tradition, the ghosts of which readily make their way into the artist’s many studio sessions. Songs 'Car 89 (feat. Charlie Wilson)', '10 points' and 'All Bad (feat. Anderson Paak)' all make use of these ghosts reverently; the trumpets, the keys, the rhythm section all beckoning to another NYC rapture that went down long before the artist was born.
The eponymously named track ‘King’s Disease’ is probably the most interesting on the album because it encompasses each conceptual level of the work. The flow is strong and tells the story of a man, presumably past his prime, caught somewhere between a window and a mirror. It mixes nostalgic reflections with wider societal critiques effortlessly – there’s a similar ironic narcissism to that which Kanye’s became known for, but Nas’, for some reason, feels a little more honest. The song begins by explaining how success begets paranoia, “Nostalgia, how I remembеr things/ Remember crowns, remember, kings/ They want your reign to cease… Family gossiping, pocket watching him/ Jealousy keeps blossoming…” Then it gets political, and wider conceptions of the black struggle take over, “The stupidest part of Africa produced Blacks that started algebra/ Proof, facts, imagine if you knew that as a child, bruh…” These outro-spective reflections lead to a strange sort of ego death, and by the end of the song there’s “real kings everywhere”.
Make no mistake, this is the most profound piece of work Nas has produced in a long time. It shines with the same poetic attention to detail, musicality and astute politics that made the man famous back in the day. King’s Disease may be understated in parts, but it’s a joy to explore throughout. It’s an important album.
King's Disease is out now via Mass Appeal.