The legendary New York emcee Nas has returned in 2020 with his 13th studio album, King’s Disease, which follows his last commercial project, NASIR, in 2018. Having cemented his legacy in the earliest years of his career with revered hip-hop classics Illmatic and It Was Written, along with solid projects overshadowed by those two scattered throughout his discography, Nas has put his recent efforts on cruise control.
From the view of mainstream rap audiences, Nasir Jones has been strictly interested in appeasing his fan base with new material, without pushing any boundaries or adjusting his style in any major way. He also lacks the hunger and vivid creativity in his rhymes that made his earlier stuff very riveting. If anything, the golden age hip-hop veteran has exceeded expectations just by remaining relevant in modern music. Very few others from that era can say the same, as nearly everyone aside from Nas and Jay-Z has retired or wandered into a more esoteric space.
King’s Disease is a step above the material that Nas has been dropping for a while now. While his rapping and fierce delivery will likely never return to its peak form, this album boasts thoughtful lyricism and classy beats that make up for that. There are flaws with this album, mostly pertaining to the structures, hooks and features, but the fundamentals of lyrics and beats are brought consistently on this project.
At 38 minutes, this project will run by quickly but not without impact. The entire project is produced by Hit-Boy, the architect of countless prominent hip-hop tracks throughout the 2010s, which brings a modern edge to the percussion and sample textures laced into each beat. This continues a recent pattern of Nas working closely and exclusively with producers, as Kanye West wholly produced his 2018 album. Oftentimes, that can nurture an atmosphere of sameness within a project that ends up sucking the energy out of it. This is not the case for the majority of this album, because Hit-Boy, along with a few co-producers, did a great job of varying his sounds and choosing fresh ideas.
Nas also made an apt choice in his thematic focuses and subject matter on this project. Similar to Jay-Z’s 4:44, this is an album fraught with personal reflection and commentary on relationship and societal dynamics, delivered with an endearing sense of honesty. Nas has some skeletons in his closet relating to abuse allegations from his ex-wife, and the way he addresses it is mature and genuine. Even though he still denies the extremity of these claims, he makes a point to approach the topic in a delicate manner. Rather than desperately aiming to placate the claims against him, he acknowledges them and reaffirms the strength of Black women in his life and his culture at large. A central motif of King’s Disease is a declaration for empowerment of Black women.
Nas did a great job formulating thematic elements that work well in his music and condensing them into short, catchy songs. “Blue Benz,” “27 Summers,” and “10 Points” are songs with a pulse that lift Nas out of the lethargic pits much of his recent work has fallen into. “Car #85” and “The Definition” are soulful cuts that go into vivid detail on his role as a man and what it means to uplift those in his community, especially women. Again, the gender dynamics on King’s Disease alone make this project stand out in Nas’ ever-growing discography.
The album does have unignorable issues at certain points, most of which can be attributed to its haste and lack of great choruses. Many of the songs here don’t even reach three minutes, and while that’s not necessarily a problem, the lack of sturdy songwriting on some of these tracks can make the brief nature really apparent. Certain features did not live up to their potential as well, specifically Lil Durk on “Til the War is Won” and Fivio Foreign on the closing track “Spicy.” A nitpick would be to criticize Anderson .Paak’s appearance on “All Bad,” which was not all bad by any means but not as memorable as many of his past features.
Nas came through with this album, shattering the streak of mediocrity that could have easily resulted in lackluster material for the rest of his career. Candid lyricism, rich production and an easily-digestible yet essential message elevates King’s Disease to artistic merits the rapper hasn’t achieved in some time.