Nas is—more than anything else—a master of perspective, as wise as the old owl. Toward the middle of his new song “Thun,” he serves up a lucid glimpse into the past and present, threading a historic rap battle with aspiration and themes of personal and cultural evolution.
“No beef or rivals, they playin’ ‘Ether’ on TIDAL/Brothers can do anything when they decide to/In a Range Rover, dissecting bars from ‘Takeover’/Sometimes I text Hova like, ‘Nigga, this ain’t over,’ laughin’,” he raps. At the time “Takeover” and “Ether” were released over 20 years ago, streaming services—let alone one owned by rappers—weren’t a thing. But the beef between Jay-Z and Esco very much was. Following the release of “Ether,” Hov unloaded “Supa Ugly,” a scathing rebuttal with a line so heinous his own mother had him call into Hot 97 to make an apology.
With their beef long-since resolved, Nas and Jigga can joke about the conflict, a reward for making it out to the other side—and thriving at that. In the merciless world of hip-hop, where rap stars die too young and survivors can fade into the abyss of an evolving music industry, that’s not so common. Nas is a phenomenon; a portrait of success as an MC who’s as prolific in middle age as he was during his youth. It’s a status he’s more than comfortable with on King’s Disease III, a project that marks his fourth Hit-Boy joint album.
For the LP, the Queensbridge poet balances playful self-mythology with mortality, telling tales of block battles, ex-lovers, actualized ambitions, and outcomes that have yet to play out. He’s sharing stories while reveling in the fact that he’s survived to tell them. While parts of it can get monotonous and he can veer off into didactics, it’s a reminder of why the 49-year-old remains one of rap’s most enduring figures.
The best parts of the LP see Nas lace nostalgic production with couplets that can oscillate between searing and paternal, connecting them with writerly details and spurts of steely-eyed sincerity. On “Ghetto Reporter,” he jumps from celebratory flexes to career existentialism, unspooling vignettes of his own success and the derailed dreams of artists who weren’t so lucky. On “Legit,” he further remembers block-dwellers—more specifically, those who transitioned from the trap to activism. And, coasting over a sample of Mary J. Blige’s “You Remind Me” for “Reminisce,” he pairs his present with his past, recalling memories of illicit dealings as a middle school dropout before comparing himself to an NFL legend who, like Nas, has prolonged his prime. “I went for the cash grab, crack cash was my math class/Fresh white tee, two diamond crosses look like a hashtag/News is fake, never knew I’d soon relate/To Tom Brady going for seven in Tampa Bay,” he raps.
We’ve heard Nas’ rags to riches story, and he’s been dealing out financial advice since he said you should buy a lottery ticket instead of liquor. And yet, with a trace of humor and imagistic bars that pull you into yesteryear, it’s all too personal to be trite. Collectively, King’s Disease III spills out like a cross-generational journal, the type that can only be written if you live long enough to look back.
And yet, Nas is looking ahead, too. On “Once a Man, Twice a Child,” he addresses the concept of aging for a track that feels like a thematic cousin to Jay-Z’s “30 Something.” He doesn’t grapple with the idea of old age as much as he takes it for a dance. “My old style is a rough of my new style/My old girl dope but I love my new girl,” he raps on the hook, his phrasing and even-keeled tone emitting acceptance. Meanwhile, on “Don’t Shoot,” Nas makes time to get idealistic while sorting through the logistics of being a rebel of the street corner and someone who’d potentially work with government officials to stop gun violence.
Nas remains profound, and his flows are still athletic, but as is the case with many of his albums, he’s got a propensity for drifting into hollow platitudes that nearly sink potent stanzas. On the otherwise dope “Get Light,” which features a great Biggie interpolation, Nas unleashes the sort of weak one-liner that’s not even clever enough to be in a fortune cookie: “The sun doesn’t even know it’s a star.”
When it’s not plagued by shoddy bars like that one, King’s Disease III is hindered slightly by a general lack of humor, cadences that can be redundant, and hooks that are rarely anthemic. Nas sounds as comfortable as ever spitting over Hit-Boy’s glossy boom bap, but the sounds aren’t eclectic enough to be distinct, and without guest verses or much tonal variation from Esco, things can get a little stale by the final few tracks. King’s Disease III isn’t necessarily apex Nas—and it might be better if it were trimmed down to the length of say, Magic—but it also doesn’t have to be for it to be a strong album.
In truth, in a genre as young as hip-hop, middle-aged rap stardom is an experiment. Besides acts like Jay-Z, very few rappers have been this good for this long, and even artists who grew up exposed to their sounds might just be losing perspective on just where these legends stand in the current rap continuum. He’s since clarified, but in a recent Clubhouse session, 21 Savage claimed that while Nas makes great music, he’s now irrelevant. Later, 21 seemingly backed off the comment, but the moment still invokes a common sentiment regarding rap legends who don’t cling to contemporary trends or the commercial plateaus they did earlier in their career. In a climate where social media clout is currency, it’s easier for some people to say Nas’s days of relevancy have indeed receded into memory. And yet, Nas’ recent top five Billboard 200 albums chart placements tell a different story. So do fans and at least two fellow rappers.
Within hours of 21’s comments, the ever controversial Kodak Black jumped onto Instagram Live to defend the rap legend. In an Instagram comment, Nas’ brother Jungle also had some harsh words for 21. Across Twitter, the whole deal became a trending topic, with multitudes of tweeters discussing Nas’ legacy and the commercial and critical success of his late career.
Nas has yet to respond, but there’s a good chance he doesn’t. After all, King’s Disease III is the portrait of a rap legend at peace. Nas is savoring his present, imagining his future and honoring his past without being constricted by it, and fans are here for it. As he rapped 15 years ago, Nas is surviving the times—and in rap, a land of broken dreams where artists endure calamity only to be forgotten altogether—that much is its own accomplishment. But, beyond that, projects like King’s Disease III show that, 30 years into his career, Nas also still has a lot to say—and the compelling mic skills to make people listen.