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Nas Pre Illmatic Demo
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Nas, the lyricist, has rarely faltered from a lyrical standpoint and his iconic vocal presence is the perfect blend of street-weathered veteran and educated poet. He’s always sounded wise beyond his years. The decades-deep criticism of Nas has always been around his production choices: “Nastradamus” leaned too far into the soulless commercial style of its time, “The Lost Tapes” is some of Nas’ best work yet it was left on the cutting room floor and as good as “Untitled” was, it felt underwhelming compared with the preceding “The N***** Tape” with Green Lantern. This careful balance between commercial success and streetwise poet almost defines Nas’ career just as much as it defines the story of hip hop. Nas is hip hop. For many fans, defending Nas can feel like you’re defending hip hop. Nas is New York. Nas is tradition. Nas is a lot of things, and for many, he’ll always be the king.

King’s Disease II” sees Nas reprise his relationship with California producer Hit-Boy, who has produced for everyone from Ariana Grande to Eminem. If anyone’s a hot name behind the boards right now, Hit-Boy is. That being said, his style lacks the distinct identity of previous trendsetters like DJ Mustard and that’s something I felt on the first “King’s Disease” as well as the Benny the Butcher project “Burden of Proof”. “That sounds like a Hit-Boy beat” could mean anything. What Hit-Boy does have with Nas is a degree of chemistry that we used to see from Salaam Remi or L.E.S.. There were signs of this on the first “King’s Disease” with songs like “Blue Benz” and Firm reunion “Full Circle”.

Firstly, this album is Nas’ best work since 2012’s “Life is Good”. Songs like “The Pressure” feel so right – the perfect blend of modern production that’s not overbearing, or overcooked, it’s the correct backdrop for Nas’ musings. Another example of this chemistry is “Rare”, with Nas even bringing us back to that mid 90s flow while initially jarring, it works well with the beat & you roll on with the nostalgia. Especially half way thru the song it becomes something else. A hit song trapped in a hit song.

The beat-switch allows Nas to flex his muscles and also backs up Hit-Boy’s versatile style. “Death Row East” has a Quik-like bounce which works well with Nas recalling plans for Death Row East and the furore around Suge Knight and 2-Pac. There are a few gems in the verses that you might usually find in a Drink Champs conversation. Nothing is phoned in, yet these aren’t just hot lines, but hot songs.

Another surprise to me was "Store Run". It's almost like a commentary about the nefarious things he has done and knows of throughout his life. Some of my favorite Rhymes come from that song:

"Rolled up a fresh one, it’s one IPO to the next one
Rich from corporate or thuggin’, expensive mistakes
It’s all a racket, it’s the same thing, just the risk that you take
Moving too fast, blues on your ass
The boys came through with the task
Peep through the blinds, you knew it was curtains
Breadwinner take a L, leave the whole family hurting
Seen it a million times, sister washed him out with the verdict“

There are times where Nas actually glides over a beat as he did on 1995’s “Verbal Intercourse”; the first verse to the surprising reunion with Lauryn Hill “Nobody” is just that, and the collaboration is better than perhaps it should be given Lauryn has been inactive for so long. Hit-Boy sliding some Pete Rock-like horns in is perfect fan service but it’s Lauryn’s performance that will inevitably turn heads. She covers a variety of topics ranging from her poor timekeeping, secretive presence and ego. "Moments” (a great example of actual “grown-man rap”), the freedoms and fears of divorced dad dating, really brings the audience to the final realization that we are dealing with a whole new Nas. The grown up mature emcee, initially showing shades of it in the later part of Stillmatic and on. Life Is Good being the best example. Oh and the whole third verse on “My Bible” that reads like a list of quotes to consider getting tattooed. We know who the prophet is, but it’s great to see Nas back and firing on all cylinders, playing up to his God’s son persona.

As much I enjoy “King’s Disease II”, there are still a few iffy decisions. “EPMD 2” is a strange sequel that captures everything wrong with today’s Eminem. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith provide a welcome trip down memory lane with their back-and-forth rhyming while instilling some thoughts on current affairs – it suits the beat and fits with Nas’ reflective spirit. The Eminem verse feels bolted on from a different track, containing the try-hard Twista approach he’s leaned into too much on recent albums.

Aside from these few niggles, this is easily Nas’ best record since 2012’s “Life is Good” and let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise. It’s been fifteen years since Nas controversially declared hip hop dead yet here we are. We have lost a number of greats in recent months. But to have Nas still with us and consistent as ever this King may have finally beaten the disease.
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