Nas’ Comeback On ‘King’s Disease’ Is The Perfect Showcase For Hit-Boy’s Versatility

For years, Nas’ worst enemy — aside from Jay-Z, of course — was himself. In 2010, he explained the then-burgeoning sentiment that his albums weren’t representative of his talent, saying, “What happens is, a lot of time goes by with me being indecisive so it winds up with me kind of doing what I have to do really fast because I played around for so long. Then, the deadlines come.”

Then, in 2018, it seemed he’d found the perfect remedy in Kanye West, only for the equation to flip. Kanye was pulled into multiple directions by the disparate needs of each of his GOOD Music artists, with the result that very few of the Wyoming-recorded projects lived up to the considerable hype, including Nas’ own rushed project. Nas’ album Nasir may have been the greatest casualty, as fans had clamored for a Kanye-produced project from the rap pioneer for years, since at least their 2006 collaboration, “Still Dreaming” from Nas’ mistitled Hip-Hop Is Dead album.

Now, with another hit-making producer in his corner, Nas tries again and mostly succeeds. While he sounds revitalized here for sure, the true star here is Hit-Boy, who curates guests and beats for the Thug Poet’s most cohesive project in years. There are a few reasons that California-bred producer makes for a more potent partner for the Queensbridge rap icon.

For one thing, the two creators share a surprisingly similar artistic sensibility. Although Hit-Boy is best known for boisterous, well, hits like “N****s In Paris,” “Clique,” “Feelin’ Myself,” and “Racks In The Middle,” his preference has long been for the soulful, ‘90s-influenced loops evidenced on his work with underrated work with Audio Push and Dom Kennedy, the latter as the duo Half-A-Mil. In fact, the first fruits of Hit’s creative partnership with Nas can be heard on Half-A-Mil’s most recent project, Also Known As…

So while many excited observers were likely anxious to hear Nas’ complicated cadences touch something like the hard-hitting beat for “Backseat Freestyle” or Hit’s roof-raising work with Beyonce, the truth was that the two were always more likely to turn in something closer to a redux of Nas’ better-received mid-90s album, It Was Written. Which, when compared to most of his more recent output, is a definite plus.

Where Hit-Boy really benefits Nas’ sometimes scatterbrained and stodgy approach is in providing both focus and a long list of contacts who help ground him, making him more of a wise uncle sharing knowledge than an old man yelling at clouds. Without Hit as an anchor, would Nas have had the wherewithal to employ Lil Durk on the chin-lifting “Til The War Is Won” or add Don Toliver to his and Big Sean’s confessional “Replace Me?” Considering some of his choices on albums like Untitled or Life Is Good, it doesn’t seem likely he’d find those younger rappers as compelling as they really are with his old-head taste.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything here for Nas’ core fanbase. While Gen Xers may find names like Fivio Foreign and ASAP Ferg off-putting, they can find comfort in the reunion of the original lineup of The Firm (plus Cormega, minus Nature) on “Full Circle,” a warm slice of nostalgia to fend off the icy touch of Father Time. Uncle Charlie Wilson pops up as well, on “Car #85,” easily the album’s highlight and a chance for Nas to revert to the Nasty of old, recounting tales of his salad days in the peak of hip-hop’s Golden Era.

Although Hit’s production and excellent guest curation does inject Nas with a much-needed dose of youthful energy and hunger, it’s debatable how good a thing that is. There’s a lot of historical value in Nas’ ‘90s narratives but little in the way of emotional weight, and things get awkward when he overreaches. It’s certainly weird to hear him doing his best Drake impression on “All Bad” with Anderson .Paak — especially with the two-ton elephant in the studio.

Oh, come on. You knew this was coming. It’s the easiest target to aim for if you’re looking for a knock on this album, and Nas couldn’t even move it an inch to the left. Once again, he fails to use his art — the one place where he has absolute control over the narrative — to address Kelis’ accusations of domestic abuse. The failure is made even more stark by the vulnerability displayed by some of his guests — Big Sean reveals some of his and Jhene Aiko’s relationship woes and puts his and Kendrick Lamar’s tiff over “Control” to bed once and for all — and Nas’ own tendency to use women as his strawmen to make muddled points.

On “The Definition,” Nas takes aim at Gayle King for… being a good journalist, I guess? Then, he compares the likes of Gayle to more “respectable” examples like Shirley Chisholm, who lived and died in the pre-social media era and would likely have had far more to say on similar topics than Nas himself ever has. Sound familiar? In a time when Black women have consistently called out these false binaries and double standards, to go in the studio, write several bars about it, record them, listen to them back several times, and decide, “Sure, let’s go with that,” is beyond tone deaf, it’s outright misogynistic.

Which is… pretty much par for the course with this particular MC. No matter how good the production is, there’s always that looming respectability politician hovering over even his best work, ready to shush an outspoken woman or make a dull-witted, half-baked comparison. Someone, maybe one of Nas’ rivals, pointed out the discrepancy once upon a time: “Is it ‘Black Girl Lost’ or shorty owe you for ice?’” On King’s Disease, Nas’ flows and name recognition provide the perfect showcase for Hit-Boy’s impressive versatility, but the content, however well it’s presented, still seems to fall short where it counts. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

King’s Disease is out now on Mass Appeal Records. Get it here.