Photo Credit: Max Montgomery
In 1994, Nasir “Nas” Jones burst onto the frontiers of hip hop seemingly out of nowhere with Illmatic (though, in reality, his first major break occurred when he featured on Main Source’s 1991 debut LP). Now considered the “gold standard” of conscious, boom-bap rap, it captured something profound, incredibly timely, and yet simultaneously prescient, in the form of deeply honest odes to his home state (“N.Y. State of Mind”), meditations on life and death (“Life’s a B*tch”) and the occasional well-earned boast (“It Ain’t Hard To Tell”). Because of this, Illmatic immediately joined the league of all-time classic debuts – alongside the likes of Enter The Wu-Tang and The Door’s self-titled.
But, if Illmatic made Nas a star, it also left him with impossible-to-fulfill expectations, and like so many artists with special debuts (see: Post-Guyville Liz Phair) it left some perpetually disappointed with Nas’ next moves. 1999’s I Am… and Nastradamus, for instance, may have generated some of the New Yorker’s biggest hits (“Nas Is Like” and the Ginuwine-featuring “You Owe Me” among them), but it was greeted with a shrug by many fans and a more visceral form of disappointment and anger by others (particularly in the case of the latter LP).
Nas’ attempts since to replicate his former glory have been thoroughly mixed. Still, with the King’s Disease trilogy – that he began in 2020 – the East Coast legend has attempted to refocus his energy on a late-career triumph. If the first two installments were largely well received but didn’t necessarily garner the hoped-for levels of enthusiasm and exclaim, King’s Disease III should. It is far and away the best of the trio and it also happens to be the 49-year-old’s best full-length project since 1996’s It Was Written. Hoping for, let alone expecting, another Illmatic was always going to be foolish – whether or not such hopes came in 1995 or 2022. That album represented the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle moment that comes just once in an artist’s career. That said, it is remarkable how close Nas comes to replicating that album’s ecstatic highs during the best moments of King’s Disease III.
The album’s towering achievement – “Once A Man, Twice A Child” – is surely the most ambitious and narrative-rich rap song you are likely to hear this year; as Nas cycles through the various stages of his life and tries to find wisdom from each one. In what is the album’s most enlightened moment, he pushes back on popular rap narratives that dismiss women’s importance and cast doubt on their agency, as he raps “Was she crazy before you met her, or you made her crazy? // Possible she gonna be a nurse when you back to a baby.” On “Beef,” Nas confronts what it means to be a famous rapper in the public eye, as he approaches his fifties – condemning the way so many would rather make heroes out of deceased rappers rather than celebrate those who are still living (“Love to many deceased over me”).
As great as most of King’s Disease III is, it remains true that a quarter-Century of stardom has made it nigh-on-impossible for Nas’ finger to stay as firmly on the pulse as it was during the making of Illmatic. On “WTF SMH,” he attempts to incorporate modern-day slang into his music, but his attempts at proving enduring relevancy end up making for the LP’s most awkward moments, as he spits a series of OMG’s, WTF’s, LMFAO’s, SMH’s and even accuses someone of ‘capping’. The rest of King’s Disease III works so well precisely because it finds Nas not trying to prove anything, but instead taking a well-deserved victory lap without sacrificing the passion and fire that made Nas’ music so indelible in the first place.