Nas Is Living Proof That Hero-Worship Is A Bad Idea
It’s been a quiet decade for Nasir Jones. Just over 10 years separates Distant Relatives, Nas and Damian Marley’s pretty decent collaborative album, and King’s Disease, the LP that Nas released on Friday. In those 10 years, Nas released two albums: 2012’s Life Is Good, a mature and reflective grown-man divorce album that I remember thinking was pretty good, and Nasir, a sloppy and rushed and crushingly disappointing Kanye West production. That’s a one pretty good album ever 10 year average.
The two defining Nas moments in the 2010s didn’t have much to do with Nas’ music. One of those moments is “Let Nas Down,” the single that J. Cole released in 2013, right when Cole was in the midst of becoming a massive star himself. The backstory on “Let Nas Down” was that Cole had heard that Nas didn’t like the radio single he’d made, and that sent Cole down such a self-doubt spiral that he went and made a whole song about it. It’s a testament to the kind of confusion that can come from regarding a man as a heroic symbol rather than just an artist who made some work that you love. Nas himself eagerly took up the heroic-symbol mantle, showing up on the remix to mythologize his own story and bestow kingly approval on Cole after all.
The second defining Nas moment came in 2018, when Kelis, his ex-wife, claimed that her marriage to Nas had included “a lot of mental and physical abuse.” Nas strenuously denied Kelis’ allegations. Whether or not you believe Kelis, the whole saga of their failed marriage is a sad and fucked-up one, and it clashes badly with the sensitive-poet persona that Nas sometimes adapts. It throws all of Life Is Good into harsh relief, and it casts a shadow over every moment on King’s Disease where Nas laments his own love life or attempts to advocate for better communication. It’s become a familiar sensation. You might not know what happened in this person’s private life, but you know enough to be bummed out over it. King’s Disease does not lift that feeling.
Too much of King’s Disease is both tedious and dubious. Nas spends a lot of time fuming about past relationships with Kelis and Nicki Minaj, blaming all drama on the other person. Because of all that, stretches of King’s Disease can be rough even if you’re trying to reserve judgement on what Kelis said about him. On the Lil Durk collab “Til The War Is Won,” Nas advocates murdering abusive men: “These coward men that were beating on you/ Let’s silence them with a silencer.” And after the phase “beating on you,” he adds a whispered ad-lib: “Never me.” It’s uncomfortable at best, despicable at worst.
In every genre, plenty of stars have done despicable things and gone on to make great music. This is the problem with hero worship, the reason why it always ends badly. Nas occupies a strange and untenable place in the rap imagination. Illmatic, Nas’ 1994 debut, is a bulletproof rap classic. As music, it hasn’t aged at all, though it’s suffered from decades of J. Cole types holding it up as the unreachable platonic ideal of a rap album. In the years since, Nas has vacillated from chasing the critical and cult love that Illmatic won him and chasing the commercial success that Illmatic couldn’t attain. He has also clearly come to believe his own hype. Nas has had great moments in his career since then, and he’s also had clangingly terrible moments. King’s Disease has both.
King’s Disease is not an event album, and that’s a good thing. Nas announced the album only a week before its release, and it’s a relatively low-stakes affair. Hit-Boy produced or co-produced every song on the album, and he’s a canny collaborator, even if he spends too much of the album chasing some sort of placid middlebrow rap template. There’s a lot of piano on the album. Many of the guests are R&B singers. Nas attempts to dispense a lot of wisdom, which doesn’t always work out. This is the kind of album where Nas tells you to hit the lemongrass and alkaline water so that you don’t get gout. Do you feel richer for that advice? Maybe you do.
One of the best songs on King’s Disease is “The Cure,” where Nas raps over a regal fanfare, sounding thoughtfully haggard and lamenting his place in the world: “The markets see you as a old-ass artist/ The McCartneys live past the Lennons, but Lennon’s the hardest.” That’s an aging artist understanding that people don’t think he’s as cool as Tupac and Biggie, simply because he’s still around, and there’s something cutting about that. But “The Cure” also has Nas saying this: “Still going deeper like I grew a new inch on my dick.” And maybe people don’t think think Nas is as cool as Tupac and Biggie because Nas will never stop saying stuff like that.
When King’s Disease works, it works because Nas is able to leave behind the wise-elder role that never really fit him, when he just raps. He does that on “Blue Benz,” remembering his hungry youth: “I used to be at The Tunnel 20 deep in a huddle/ Razors on us that’ll make skin bubble/ Moet we guzzle.” Nas also does that on “Full Circle,” reuniting with the members of his mid-’90s supergroup the Firm (including an uncredited Dr. Dre, who served as executive producer of their one album.) Nas even does that on the bonus track “Spicy,” teaming up with Fivio Foreign and A$AP Ferg over a hard piano beat. Fivio and Ferg are both in their thirties, but they’re both far younger than Nas. And yet all three of them make sense together, talking New York shit over a New York beat. Nas can still do that. When he does, he still sounds strong. When he doesn’t, he lets us down.
1. Chief Keef – “Bang Bang”
When Sosa is in seethe mode, he can get you making ugly faces even at lines about eating Thai food in Hawaii. This beat makes me want to punch my best friend in the neck.
2. DaBoii – “Bill Gatin”
This track sounds like it was recorded on a laptop mic, and somehow this makes its energy hit even harder. DaBoii never rides beats. Instead, he tries to yell them into submission. It shouldn’t ever work, and it always does.
3. Headie One – “Ain’t It Different” (Feat. AJ Tracey & Stormzy)
You should know that three of the biggest artists in grime are now rapping over motherfucking “Butterfly,” or at least over the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar line that Crazy Town sampled for “Butterfly,” and that it sounds incredible.
4. The Lox – “Bout Shit” (Feat. DMX)
Sheek Louch, in the middle of a hard-ass song: “I pop up more than my son’s ack-a-nee.” Imagine being Sheek Louch’s son right now.
5. BbyMutha – “11:11″
How many rappers would hear a beat this weird and then use it to straightforwardly growl about fucking for two minutes?