Nas And Hit-Boy Have Co-Written A Chapter In Hip-Hop History

A look back at 'King's Disease' and 'Magic' trilogies...

Nas is a defining figure in the history of rap music. Debut album ‘Illmatic’ famously saw the Queensbridge artist assemble a Who’s Who of East Coast production talent, resulting in one of the totemic projects from hip-hop’s oft-cited Golden Age. Yet too often the record has felt a little like a burden – Nas has struggled to move beyond its shadow, with each subsequent release compared and contrasted to its illustrious predecessor. His partnership with producer Hit-Boy – which closed this month with the release of ‘Magic 3’ – is the moment where this link is broken, with their work representing the most consistent and enriching of his career.

While ‘Illmatic’ may be an unimpeachable classic, much of what followed struggled to re-capture that magic. While 1996 LP ‘It Was Written’ was commercially successful, it was also inconsistent; 1999 pairing ‘I Am…’ and ‘Nastradamus’ didn’t work on either a public or critical plane.

Indeed, Nas’ journey to recapture the flame would become the prevailing topic of fan conversation over the next decade. As much as some rush to defend ‘Street’s Disciple’ or the divisive ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’, the Queens talent failed to engender the critical amalgamation that coalesced around his debut. 2012’s ‘Life Is Good’ was a burst of inspiration, but nothing followed – Nas invested in tech, and won riches, but only used the studio sparingly.

If 2018’s ‘Nasir’ represented a mis-use of the potential between the rapper and co-conspirator Kanye West, then his recent run is the exact polar opposite. Hit-Boy was the perfect choice for a Nas record – the two implicitly balance one another, the respect shown by the producer equally only by the rapper’s need for sonic inquiry, the requirement for truly new ideas.

‘King’s Disease’ in 2020 was the first sign that something special was under way. Released in the opening months of the pandemic, it felt like a beautiful piece of fan service, returning Nas to the type of beats that first caught their attention. Yet it was also far from ‘Illmatic Pt. 2’ – finally learning to embrace his heritage, Nas then also overcame it.

A sequel soon followed, before the duo struck out once more with 2021 record ‘Magic’. Pivoting towards 21st century production techniques, Nas was continually challenged, and continually rose higher – his pen-game never slipped, his flows perpetually linked to the sonics which surrounded them.

Six albums, two trilogies, and three years of music – the partnership between Nas and Hit-Boy easily out-ranks any comparable period in either of their discographies. ‘Illmatic’ and ‘It Was Written’ retain their classic status, but what followed became fallow, lacking inspiration – two faults that no one could possibly find in the ‘King’s Disease’ or ‘Magic’ continuum.

Some online narratives serve that Hit-Boy rescued Nas from a certain obsequious. Others argue that the rapper plucked Hit-Boy from some form of obscurity. Neither of those are valid: Nas showed on both ‘Life Is Good’ and ‘Nasir’ that he retained his fire, it just had to be engaged correctly. Equally, Hit-Boy was hardly unknown – he’s worked with a slew of major league artists, notably supplying beats for Rihanna.

It’s a testament to what they’ve achieved that such in-depth debates are possible. The impact of ‘King’s Disease’ and ‘Magic’ has already spun out beyond their control, taking on fandoms in their own right. For Nas, too, there’s a sense of a rejuvenation in his thirst for the craft – sharing his 50th year with hip-hop, he’s able to sign off on two lavish trilogies.

In a video accompanying the release, he offered a multitude of praise to his wing-man and collaborator. “For me, there’s an emotional moment because to complete something beyond what you thought you were even working on…we didn’t know we’d do six albums,” said Nas. “So to be at this point, it’s satisfying, it’s gratifying, it’s a feeling of accomplishment on another level for myself as an MC, and I’m lucky enough to work with some of the greatest producers in the world.”

Writing on social media, Hit-Boy reflected on a life-long ambition to work with the MC, before re-asserting his need for space to work on “personal projects” – including music with the Alchemist.

Departing from one another’s gravitational pull, Nas and Hit-Boy have been transformed by this mutual endeavour. In both fulfilling and subverting fan expectations, the pair have been able to move their work into a fresh plane. Nas deals with the weight of his iconic debut while also asserting the broader richness of his catalogue, facing new challenges with a passion for creativity. Hit-Boy leaves the shadow of ‘King’s Disease’ and ‘Magic’ as one of the most sought-after producers on the planet. For fans, we’re left with the undeniable richness of their achievements.

Words: Robin Murray

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