For many artists, the concept of reaching your peak is bittersweet. Considering these moments as the highest point of your career in which you make your most groundbreaking and vital work. The prospect of talking about it in the past tense infers that, from there on out, everything else you drop is part of a futile pursuit to recapture lightning in a bottle.
So, what do you do when the world almost unilaterally agrees that your finest hour and your first release are one and the same? Do you settle for leaving that indelible imprint in the sand and living out the rest of your career coasting on the knowledge that you dropped one of your genre’s sacred texts? Or do you continue to do what you love for decades, even when the naysayers wish to use your defining moment as a millstone around your neck?
Nas was once mocked by his former nemesis Jay-Z for having a “one hot album every ten-year average." The bar commented on the success of Illmatic, which has cast a large, lingering shadow over Nas's career. Beset by accusations that he picked bad beats, to implications that a formulaic staleness had set in long ago, there was a time when people wrote the Queensbridge MC off.
However, we exist in a vastly different paradigm today. From 2020 onwards, Nasir Jones has been on a rejuvenating upswing of creativity. Flanked by Hit-Boy, 2020’s King’s Disease marked a return to form that’d eventually earn Nas his first Grammy Award. Soon after, its sequel proved that this was anything but a fluke. Then, December 2021’s Magic arrived with little warning. The surprise album ratified Nas as creatively and artistically renewed, long after he first staked a claim among the hottest MCs.
With Nas and Hit-Boy firing on all cylinders for the past two years, fans anxiously wondered if they could sustain this high-caliber execution. Well, truth be told, they established a stamp of quality that they continue to uphold. Together, they made Nas' most consistent and awe-inspiring album in decades with King's Disease III.
Setting off with the ambiance of a classic, the vibrant “Ghetto Reporter” lurches into life. Immediately, Nas points out the magnitude of his and Hit's accomplishments in recent years. “For me, droppin' album after album like it's a various artists compilation," he proclaims. "But it's just me and HB and this shit takes concentration/ N***s know I don't drop this often so cherish it."
Nas is operating with supreme confidence at this juncture of his career. And, it's a pleasure to behold. It's clear when he dips into Eminem’s flow from "The Way I Am" mid-verse. Or when he declares that KD III is the hardest of them all. Many legends are liable to try and curry favor with contemporary audiences, but KD III is the sound of self-assuredness. Alongside the wisdom that each bar contains, the concluding entry in the trilogy depicts how Nas regained his footing. Nas admits that he's grown comfortable in knowing that he still has something vital to offer.
By this point, Hit-Boy is as instrumental to Nas’ legacy as AZ, Large Professor, or DJ Premier. The Californian producer acts as the creative kindling for the rapper, rising from the brink of becoming a heritage act. At the same time, Hit-Boy finds a new echelon of greatness that distinguishes him from his peers. His production runs the gamut of sound and texture in a way that mandates greatness from Nas. As a result, Nas delivers in a capacity that can't be dwarfed by the scale of each instrumental.
Though the previous two installments in this series contained a litany of features, Nas stands alone on this occasion. Hit-Boy's production allows him to relish in the space that solitude provides. Meanwhile, the rapper fleshes out his concepts, themes, and often, profound musings.
With Nas rhyming with tenacity and hunger that belies his 49 years, it compels Hit-Boy to stretch himself further. That’s exactly what he does on tracks such as “Recession Proof.” Built off a slice of blaxploitation-inspired funk, its propulsive rhythm enables Nas to thoughtfully equip the youth with the knowledge that he likely had to go without in his early days. On other occasions, Hit-Boy returns to the familiar well of Soul Surplus, from which he culled samples for tracks like “Speechless” and Benny The Butcher’s “Legend." It's these moments that enable Nas's leisurely flexes across the uproarious party starter, “Get Light.”
Although he escaped the sinister aspects of NYC's underbelly long ago, Nas's hometown pride comes in blistering form on “Thun." Realized over one of the most rollicking and authoritative beats we’ve heard Nasir on in decades, it represents the first sighting of a recurring motif across the record: his belief in unity. He reflects on his explosive rivalry with Hov as a humorous topic of conversation. “No beef or rivals, they playing ‘Ether’ on TIDAL/Brothers can do anything when they decide to," he raps. "In a Range Rover, dissecting bars from ‘Takeover'/ Sometimes I text Hova like, ‘N***a, this ain’t over,' laughin'."
Doused in breezy showmanship, Nas even lets off a cursory “shamone” over the minimal guitar melodies and persistent drums of “Quincy & Michael.” The compositionally layered offering compares Nas and HB's collaborative dynamic to that of the legendary producer and the King Of Pop's on Thriller. You can feel the vigor in Nas's voice across the track. Nas emphasizes this sense further, declaring, “right now, it feels like I’ve got the power of a hundred men." Considering they compare themselves to two veritable music legends, the track's tone can’t help but be self-congratulatory. Still, it's not in a way that feels disingenuous or unmerited.
Despite the fact that he isn't justifying his relevancy with past accolades, much of KD III is reflective in nature. Nasir anchors his stunning performance on "My First Time" with a birds-eye view. The perspective allows him to consider his position in hip-hop and how he's permeated the culture. Rather than being an exercise in egotism, Nas uses himself as a conduit to discuss the transformative power of music. He etched his name in stone in the last 30 years but there's excitement about the future of hip-hop. Nas captures this best when he describes his first-ever encounter with Kendrick Lamar.
On “Reminisce”, the faintly forlorn chipmunk soul that punctuates the production stands at odds with Nas’ sermon on resilience. "I don't like to reminisce, 'Cause what we doin' right now is really lit," he raps. "The things that shaped me would've murked you." Hit-Boy plunges Nas headlong into that present moment, dispelling hints of nostalgia with a drill-oriented beat switch. It's a subtlety that acts as a rebuttal to the idea of fixating on the past. Sure enough, Mr. Jones’ ability to float on it with ease ensures that it doesn’t feel like pandering. Rather, it's a deft tip of the cap to the culture's future that he can play a role in on his own terms.
As an elder statesman and a culturally-vital voice, Nas dedicates King's Disease III latter parts to dropping gems on societal ills. His poetic prowess takes heed on “Beef," similarly executed to It Was Written’s "I Gave You Power." He personifies this corruptive force that he sees in all cultures and civilizations. He dials in with comparisons to disputes between rivaling neighborhoods and nations. From there, he peers backward at the ways conflict befell his contemporaries.
Pacifistic in tone, “Don’t Shoot” sees Nas directly plead to the youth and OG’s, imploring them to change their ways. After leading by example on this project, he urges the listener and his community to follow his lead in looking inward to find the "cure for your King's Disease."
King's Disease III is the crowning glory of a new golden era for QB’s finest, just in time for year-end lists. It’s one that has left him feeling energized, yet ponderous about not only himself but culture & society at large. While the stakes were undoubtedly high when it came to providing a fitting climax to an iconic act in his career, one thing that’s refreshing about KD III is that it doesn’t become bogged down by the sense of grandeur or significance. In fact, where some of pre-King’s Disease era Nas projects seemed as though he was rhyming through gritted teeth, he’s evidently having fun these days.