Published Aug 31, 2020There's no denying that Nasir "Nas" Jones is a cultural force unto himself. Across a career spanning three decades, the Queensbridge, NY-bred rapper has a pedigree of records and hits that most MC's would outright kill for — not to mention Grammy wins, frequent slots on G.O.A.T. lists, and an accumulation of wealth and success. And yet, on his thirteenth solo album, Nas pauses to address what he perceives to be the price of this triumph.
On the grandiose "The Definition," Nas quickly strips away the MC mystique: "The definition of King's Disease / Well, also known as rich man disease / You ain't gotta be rich to get it / Just doing too much, you'll get it." (In case it's not clear here, he's talking about gout.) And much like the affliction Nas uses as a clumsy metaphor for power and privilege, King's Disease is a record that's occasionally swollen with too many ideas, backed up by lazy rhymes and unsavoury politics. Thankfully, with impeccable production overseen by executive producer Hit-Boy and bolstered by a slew of excellent guest features, Nas overcomes these pain points to pull together his most satisfying project in close to a decade.
What Nas perhaps understands better than most MCs of his calibre, is that hip-hop is most effective when it tempers the celebration of excess with an affirmation of struggle. "Blue Benz" finds Nas sitting comfortably in the old-school pocket once more, riding Hit-Boy's thrumming bassline, grimy synthesizers and soft piano keys with the style and finesse of a master storyteller: "But I rock custom more, that hustler aura, tap in / Razor cutter, '90s, '80s lover, raised in gutters / Raised above it, they made it up out the hood subject, I made you love it." Nas's nostalgic tendencies then go into overdrive on the pulsing "Car #85," as he wistfully recalls hood logistics, street corner lust, and the escapism offered by cutting laps through the five boroughs, all carried along by Charlie Wilson's sultry backing vocals.
Elsewhere on King's Disease, Nas uses his considerable platform to emphasize the power and importance of Black culture, like on the bombastic kick of "Ultra Black" ("Hall & Oates, I can't go for that / Motown Museum, Detroit, I'm ultra Black / This for New York and all the map / No matter your race, to me, we all are Black") and the icy-synths and horns of "27 Summers" ("Blowing kush clouds and we all for the smoke/ Bitch, black card, black Rolls, more black C.E.O.s"), with the latter sounding like a spiritual, East Cast successor to a Nipsey Hussle track.
However, when King's Disease falters, it's primarily due to a lack of self-awareness and misplaced romanticism. "Replace Me" features a lovelorn Nas pining for companionship, with Big Sean's weak verse cancelling out Don Toliver's sultry croon. Nas then completely jumps the shark into outright misogyny and tunnel vision on "Til the War Is Won," conflating traditional gender roles with performatives nods to domestic violence and police brutality ("You just depressed a bit, and only good for sexin' with you / Let's dismantle that, it's a man you lack"). Given Nas's public relationship fallout and mutual accusations of abuse, there's a bitter taste to be found with these unpleasant moments surface. There are also oblique jabs at women in the limelight (see the references to Doja Cat on "Ultra Black" and Gayle King on "The Definition") alongside inelegant wordplay on the record's title track ("The stupidest part of Africa produced Blacks that started algebra"), all of which recalls the uneven, Kayne West-inspired aphorism's of 2018's underwhelming Nasir project.
That's not to say that things can't be enjoyable on King's Disease. Anderson .Paak adds his soulful talents to a back-end feature on the piano ballad-esque "All Bad." Meanwhile, posse-cut "Full Circle" features a reunion of '90s supergroup the Firm, with a killer verse from AZ and poignant bars from Dr. Dre as closer ("Mastered this, no alternative / Classic shit, that's affirmative / Ha, got me out here on my first-degree murder shit / Stretch marks from this art, gave birth to this").
Running it back to opening track "Blue Benz," there's an intro sample here that unwittingly nails the push-pull at the heart of King's Disease: "As we go through life, one of the big questions about / Things we purchase is — what the value of it is: is it really worth it?" And in asking this question of Nas' thirteenth album, the answer is a resounding yes — despite its noticeable misgivings and marked room for improvement. (Mass Appeal)