Let’s start with the most obvious thing for hip-hop fans or casual observers: Nas dropping his fourth album in two years is pure insanity. This is the guy who famously dropped “four albums in 10 years” during the ’90s, six albums (including a double LP) during the 21st century’s first ten years, and only showed up twice during the 2010s. But those two times made sense. He seemed more focused on taking well-deserved career victory laps, making lucrative investments, and watching his kids go from one phase to the next in their own lives. Was there anything left for Nas to do?
Then he met Hit-Boy, and everything changed.
2020’s King’s Disease triumphantly announced their partnership with soul samples, jazz loops, and even a family reunion with The Firm. 2021’s King’s Disease II improved the formula and proved the first time was no fluke. Magic illustrated how prolific their pairing truly was. As of Friday, November 11th, we’ve got Disease III, their most focused and confident collaboration. King’s Disease III is Michael Jordan shooting a free throw with his eyes closed, just because. At this point, there aren’t any more challenges left for the legendary MC and his producing partner-in-crime.
This is Nas’ best rapping performance in quite some time, which is saying something considering the last two years. Nas experiments with flows, rhythms, and cadences with a confidence not seen from him since the last Chicago Bulls three-peat. Whether it’s the second verse on “Ghetto Reporter,” the relaxed double-time flow on “30,” switching speeds on “I’m on Fire,” or combining rhythms on multiple songs whenever Hit Boy switches up the beat halfway through, Nas is on one.
His flow never lacked, but he rarely colored outside the lines prescribed by fans, critics, or producers. He no longer sounds like an MC carrying the weight of an entire project on his shoulders because, inevitably, some of the production might let him down. Hit Boy’s presence gives Nas the confidence to let loose regarding flow and subject matter.
“Thun” reveals he and JAY-Z occasionally joke about their beef (“No beef or rivals, they playing ‘Ether’ on TIDAL/ Brothers can do anything when they decide to/ In a Range Rover, dissecting bars from ‘Takeover’/ Sometimes I text Hova like, ‘N***a, this ain’t over,’ laughing,”). He tackles critics who call him hypocritical for making songs like this and “I Can”: “Speaking unity for years but face scrutiny/ He weird, one day Esco be rapping ’bout shootin’ me/ Next day he say, ‘And I can,’ be been confusin’ me/ Don’t wet that, I advise you to mind, I don’t just rap.”
And then there’s “Beef,” a song where Esco raps from the perspective of the ever-encompassing drama that puts friend against friend, block against block, or country against country. While not quite the level of “I Gave You Power” — a very high bar — the song acts as a semi-sequel. “I Gave You Power” examines guns as a symptom, while “Beef” explores the sickness. The joint comes off corny or preachy in the wrong hands. But Nas’ career experience combined with Hit Boy’s smooth beat creates an entertaining and thoughtful listen.
It’s not just what he’s saying but the ease with which he says everything. It’s often overlooked how comfortable a rapper sounds over a beat, but as DJ Khaled might say, that’s a “major key.” Each King’s Disease entry showcases an MC getting more relaxed in his metaphorical shoes track by track. One look at the tracklist for each album brings that into focus.
The more at-ease Nas feels, the fewer people he invites to the party. From 11 features on KD to 8 on KDII, to a whopping… zero on KDIII. This is all Nas at his most introspective, observational, and musical because it’s all him. Although he comes from a musical background, Nas’ albums often keep it straightforward regarding song construction. A hook sandwiched by two or three verses. KDIII adds bridges to that formula. “First Time,” forgoes the recipe altogether, opting for two verses and no hook, while letting the air between verses and Hit Boy’s beat do the rest of the work.
Nas constantly experiments with different ideas, beats, or concepts in his music. But at moments throughout his storied career, those moves conflicted with the rest of the album. Everything feels like a piece on KDIII. In fact, those moments that stuck out, like Michael Myers at a Mary Kay convention in the previous installments, are absent. Those songs where Nas invited the younger generation to his reindeer games weren’t awful. They worked independently but felt out of place on their respective albums.
Eschewing those moments in favor of what Nas and Hit Boy do best together makes for a more cohesive work that never sounds forced or engineered for specific demographics. Nas returns to doing what he did perfectly on Illmatic: Bringing the listener into his world rather than fitting into theirs. That lesson is the greatest of all for a guy focused on showing the next generation how to avoid pitfalls and the safest vines in the jungle.
Two songs illustrate the KD series at its best: “Michael & Quincy” and “Once a Man, Twice a Child.” The former explains why Hit Boy is the Quincy Jones to Nas’ Michael Jackson. At the same time, the latter focuses on Nas’ mortality. Thinking about his last days on this blue spinning ball isn’t new for Nas. It is, however, the first time his musings on death don’t involve the same tragic fate as Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., or so many others he grew up with in the Queensbridge projects. He’s at peace with his legacy, life, and the fact that old age is inevitable.
But Nas also recognizes that the lessons never stop coming as he gets older. One of those lessons came in the form of hooking up with a producer 14 years younger than him from the West Coast who, despite initial head scratches, became his most prolific collaborator. They say you’re never too old to learn, and the King’s Disease III proves that “they,” whoever they are, know what they’re talking about.
Nas saved the best for last, if this is the trilogy’s end. KDIII is the exclamation point at the end of his career’s most consistently dope stretch. It pays tribute to everything that came before it while whetting the appetite for what’s next.
Essential Tracks: “Michael & Quincy,” “Reminisce,” “Once a Man Twice a Child”
King’s Disease III Artwork: