What a year it's been for Nasty Nas. After kicking the year off by winning Best Rap Album at the Grammys for his 2020 album 'King's Disease', the hip-hop titan quickly followed up with the critically adored sequel 'King's Disease II'. 'KD2' further cemented the ironclad bond between the 48-year-old MC and instrumental-crafting tour de force we know as Hit-Boy, stitching the connective tissue between all of Nas' latest releases.
Dropping unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, Nas' fifteenth LP 'Magic' might be one of the strongest rap releases we've heard all year. Once again, tapping Hit-Boy for their third full-length outing, Nas sounds more comfortable than ever, propagating a rich yet stripped-back aesthetic tailor-made for the New York rapper's densely woven and polemic lyricism.
In a year where many of the wordsmith's peers have either morphed into legacy status, passing the baton the new crop of artists in favour of tackling other ventures or simply lacking the fire they did in their youth, Nas has once again set a new standard with 'KD2' and 'Magic' for sounding the hungriest he's been in years, subverting the age-old notion that rap is simply a "young man" sport. "I'm twenty-one years past the 27 Club / It's like I went back into my past, and then I sped it up," Nas raps on the opening cut 'Speechless', giving listeners a thematic thesis statement for the album, acknowledging his ability to remain timeless and musically relevant, a by-product of hard work and rap sorcery.
In an era where record labels weaponise streams and long-form projects for clout, 'Magic' and its nine-track offering is similar to 'Illmatic’ in terms of length. The album sees Nas trade filler tracks for a handful of head-bopping anthems that evoke critical thinking. Throughout, Nas touches upon street-level violence, Black business, the rap dynasty and most, importantly himself—something critics aimed at when his 2018 'Nasir' album dropped.
Although this album is best enjoyed from start to finish, 'Wu for the Children' is a cut that stands out in particular. Imbued with a luxurious, buttery soul-clenched backdrop, 'Wu for the Children' arguably features the album's strongest beat as Nas gives props to Wu-Tang Clan and departed member Ol' Dirty Bastard and the recently passed Virgil Abloh. Nas also drops rap history on listeners as he ponders what could've changed if he hopped on Biggie Smalls' ill-fated 'Gimmie the Loot' remix alongside Jay-Z - whom Nas feuded with in the 90s - and draws parallels between Hov, Biggie and himself and Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole today. The track also tackles many of Nas' die-hard fans, naysayers and the double-edged sword that is bearing the load of Illmatic (generally considered to be the greatest hip hop album ever) rapping: "Special like my listeners who have attachments to my old style / Won't let me pass it."
Unlike the highly collaborative 'KD2', 'Magic' features lone guest appearances from A$AP Rocky and black-belt worthy producer DJ Premier on the song 'Wave Gods'. Pummelling the listener with 90s boom-bap flavour, with a crisp, almost surgical level of minimalist restraint, 'Wave Gods' sees Nas and Rocky rap back-to-back celebrating hip hop over Premo's masterful DJ scratches.
Throughout Nas' career, there's a lot of discourse on what could've been. What if he dropped his third album, 'I Am', in its original double-disc format? What if Nas hopped on a song with person X? etc. On 'Magic', Nas seems as tuned into the culture as ever before, fulfilling his prophecy as rap leading lyricist, almost as if he's ushering in a new prime of his career. In the years to come, the 'King's Disease' era ('Magic' in particular) will likely be ranked among the upper echelons of Nas' discography. With a solid foundation of beats, introspective lyricism and a sharp pen at his disposal, Nas might be the only rapper to have two releases in the best albums of the 2021 conversation. Magic.
Words: Niall Smith // @niallcsmith
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