Reviews are a pain-free way of combining writing with what I love (for example, music), in a way that generates interest.
Ever-Ready and Hungry
Over the festive period, New York rapper Nas released a surprise, fourteenth studio album called ‘Magic’.
After 2020’s ‘King's Disease’ and this summer’s ‘King's Disease II’, ‘Magic’ is the third consecutive Nas album to be produced entirely by frequent collaborator and record producer Hit-Boy.
‘Magic’ is centred around a tracklist of raw and brawny throwback beats. Overall, the LP’s production sounds crisp and impassioned. Several of the instrumentals feel notably deliberate. Almost as if they’ve been specifically designed to agitate and protest against the trends today’s rap charts are governed by.
Interestingly, Nas’s old rival Jay Z recently stated during a Twitter Spaces talk that he would be unbeatable in a face-off on Verzuz, the webcast series in which two (often R&B and hip hop) musicians’ discographies are pitted against each other. Well, Nas’s new studio album ‘Magic’ confirms that after nearly 30 years of rap notoriety, the New Yorker still has fuel in his artistic tank, and that he’s ready to put it to use.
Even during the album’s passable moments, Nas remains a scalpel-sharp presence and dexterous powerhouse. He rarely takes his foot off the gas.
Since Nas burst onto the hip-hop scene in ’94 with his landmark debut project ‘Illmatic’, his lyrical capabilities have never truly been in question. Yet despite this, the 48-year old’s lyrical prowess is pushed firmly into the spotlight right across ‘Magic’. There seems to be a deliberate crusade to do so, and ‘Magic’ is successful at it.
‘Magic’ sleekly portrays Nas as an ever-ready and hungry performer. Over the meaty beat-work of ‘Meet Joe Black’, while considering his place on the all-time greatest rappers list, a shocked Nas can be heard spitting: “Your top three? I’m not number one? How could you post that!?”
Like A Sword and Shield
The rapper’s industry credibility and street experience is brandished like a sword and shield on 'Magic'.
It’s used to navigate his way through a world he doesn’t always understand (or want to understand), as well as size up a whole new generation of rap competition. “They don't have the history in the streets that compare with us”, the rapper retorts on album opener ‘Speechless’.
It must be said that ‘Magic’ sacrifices a fair bit of innovation in order to make room for its admittedly pristinely-executed, and dominant throwback agenda. On some tunes, the project’s old-school, nineties hip hop motif compounds the record’s inability to surprise, and stay fresh. The release’s vintage ideologies often suffocate. This especially true of the album’s second half.
‘Magic’ is hindered by a stasis in which the project’s tracks do the same thing in the same ways, with no real forward momentum or any seeming interest in entering the modern music landscape. The LP’s lowest points seem content to go back and educate listeners about hip hop’s past - and just stay there.
Highlight track ‘Meet Joe Black’ however, gives Nas the opportunity to scope contemporary rap music trends - but with his throwback intentions firmly in tow. The project’s retrospective agenda gives way again for more up-to-date ideas on ‘Hollywood Gangster’ and ’40-16 Building’. ‘Magic’ is made more impactful and viable when it does this.
“When You Get a Lil' Older, You Move Different”
‘Ugly’ stands out on ‘Magic’ because no other track on the LP replicates it’s smokey, delicate and cinematic romanticism. It’s satisfying to hear the New Yorker determinedly spit poetic grime over the tune’s robust wall of enveloping piano loops and lush, textured strings.
Nas starts ‘Hollywood Gangster’ by shouting out an upcoming wave of New York drill rappers. However, the emcee is just as quick to confess towards the track’s climax that, “when you get a lil' older, you move different”.
The achingly nostalgic and almost whimsical instrumental of ‘Wu For The Children’ also stands apart from the rest of ‘Magic’. Hit-Boy’s production contrasts hugely with Nas’s brutally confessional, regretful and sometimes resentful rap lyrics. On ‘Wu For The Children’ the emcee speaks about being surrounded by various people who are not a fit for him, and wastes no time delivering blistering commentary and observations about them all.
Thankfully, towards the end of ‘Wu For The Children’, Nas pulls back and refocuses on those he is impressed by. The rapper is heard paying tribute to several deceased public figures and “special people” like Wu-Tang Clan icon ODB, philanthropist Jacqueline Avant and creative visionary Virgil Abloh.
Rap Samples and Turntable Flourishes
The album’s only guest artists, fellow New Yorker A$AP Rocky and hip hop kingpin DJ Premier, both appear on ‘Wave Gods’. ‘Wave Gods’ is blessed and elevated by a selection of rap samples and turntable flourishes.
Rocky covets a large portion of ‘Wave Gods’ for himself. He falls in line with the album’s throwback blueprint a little too easily though. Rocky mostly uses his verse to channel his own rap heroes of yesteryear.
That said, A$AP Rocky holds his own, and impacts convincingly alongside Nas. Both Nas and A$AP Rocky push their lyrical prowess to the tune’s forefront - and it’s the best thing about ‘Wave Gods’. The track is as autobiographical as any memoir Nas could pen.
Nas’s OG Rap Status Takes Centerstage
On ‘The Truth’, Nas can’t help but compare the era of hip hop that made him a star with what he witnesses on the TV and online nowadays. “Can't bury you with your money, can't bury you with your b***h”, the rapper mutters at the track’s start. Nas proceeds to attack unnamed figures within the rap industry for their superficial personalities and insubstantial movements, which he is staunchly unfazed by. The emcee is ravenous on ‘The Truth’. His overall commitment and non-stop, full-frontal lyrical charge is hard to resist.
Nas’s OG status takes centerstage and amplifies the tune ‘Dedicated’. ‘Dedicated’ could’ve only been made by an artist who’s served as much time in the industry as Nas has. Nas is observant and remains focused as he raps about his past on New York’s streets, as well as the ills that still blight his hometown decades later.
A punchy, proudly old-school, 90’s-infused hip hop beat oversees the first half of ‘Dedicated’. However, about halfway through the cut producer Hit-Boy switches it up for more mysterious beats, and ominous baselines. Across the track’s phases, Nas impacts fearlessly in a way that is not characterised or defined by unchecked bravado, but by a calm, yet palpable steadfastness.