There is something about Nas that resonates with hip hop fans around long enough to remember a time before his debut release. And a whole generation who came of age as he rose through the ranks. The critically acclaimed Illmatic debut is easily placed on any Best Hip Hop Albums of All-Time lists (that matter). While Main’s Source’s Live at the BBQ introduced the hip hop world to a taste of the wordsmith, it was Illmatic that solidified his rise into the upper echelon of MCs in the mid-90s.
Streets disciple / my raps are trifle / I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle
– Live at the BBQ
The twenty-year-old MC was supported with bangin production from respected heavyweights who have now ascended to iconic status, such as Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and DJ Premier. That’s a tough act to follow for any artist and fertile ground for the legendary sophomore jinx.
Commercially that didn’t happen with his follow-up, It Was Written, hitting number one on the Billboard Album Charts and scooping up over 2 million units during the first few months. Critically however, it was the beginning of complaints of being “too commercial” that would plague him for years to come.
Yeah, they call me Nas I ain’t your legal type of fella / Moet drinkin’, marijuana smokin’ street dweller
Personally, I owned all his projects until God’s Son – his sixth album. That’s an incredible run for any artist to gain that much of a loyal following. The unfortunate thing is that they didn’t seem to reach anywhere near the lofty artistic heights and consistency of Illmatic.
I really wanted to, but I wasn’t feeling his last effort, the Kanye West produced, Nasir. It struck me as a conscious effort to appeal to a new hip hop audience with a producer not hitting the high notes like he used to. Yeezy going through some serious mental health issues at the time probably didn’t help, either. I understand taking that approach and on paper the concept looks great. It just didn’t land for me.
Enter King’s Disease.
I had high hopes that this latest album would be a triumphant comeback for Mr. Jones.
Nas has found a sweet balance between capturing the gritty and dreamy essence of 90s New York boom bap, while keeping the production contemporary without leaning too heavily on today’s sounds. It’s a great ride with a solid array of beats that compliment Nasty Nas’s signature street life imagery.
From the opening salvo of the Hit-Boy produced album he re-introduces himself to listeners over chipmunked vocals sans drums. This nicely sets the table for track number two, Blue Benz, a signal flare for heads lighting the way back to the block for the Queensbridge MC. From there Car #85 rolls through with the all-blacked out tint during golden hour. Ultra Black brings the runners home.
The initial vibe is a smooth nostalgic trip and it’s not until 27 Summers (track five) that things get a bit gritty. From the horn sounds on 10 points to the eerie, filtered-out vocal loop on The Cure, where Nas paints pictures about living like Rick James and growing an extra inch, this project flows and doesn’t suffer from the past criticisms of uninspiring beat choices.
Hit-Boy knocks this thing out of the park.
I was curious for the Firm reunion. Foxy Brown, AZ, Cormega and Dr. Dre are sluggers on their own, but have struggled to reach the heights that were expected when collaborating together. At first listen to Full Circle, I wasn’t blown away, I imagine partly because the track serves as an energetic low point compared to the rest of the album. So, I gave it the old car test and cranked it while I flew down Highway One towards Horseshoe Bay. It passed. A slow burner that should be paired with the appropriate indica for proper effect.
The album also has its fair share of features, but not so many that it waters down the star of the show. Anderson Paak (All Bad), Big Sean (Replace Me), and A$AP Ferg (Spicy) all combine with serious results that form a well rounded piece of art from front to back.
I think vintage Nas fans, newcomers and music fans alike will be able to appreciate the quality of this album. Handing Hit-Boy the full-time production duties was a home run as he was able to straddle the line of staying true to the type of soundscapes that Nas has excelled on through the years, while staying relevant to the ever-evolving palettes of modern listeners. If this was to be his final effort (I doubt it), one could easily argue that his two greatest albums were his first and his last.
No easy feat.
Jamie “JT James” Thirsk is a DJ, producer and writer based out of Vancouver, Canada. A veteran of the DJ and recording worlds. he has produced several projects in the genres of hip hop and electronic music under various aliases such as James Divine, Track Nicholson and Sandy Villanova. When he’s not on the decks, in the studio or staring into a blank word document you can catch him at the beach, hiking through the forest or telling people how much yoga can change their life. Look out for his latest project Wulvun and their debut single ‘Far Away’ streaming now on all major platforms.
Wulvun Single https://youtu.be/LPDQThtj_TA