Album Review: Nas – Magic

[Mass Appeal; 2021]

Nas needed Hit-Boy. In the (now truly many) days since Illmatic, the legendary MC has often been derided – sometimes more fairly than others – for his ear for beats. Even linking up with (at least one time) a visionary didn’t much help, as his linkup with Kanye West for NASIR largely fell flat – partly because it was a pairing that just didn’t work as well as it should have, and partly due to Nas often more than sounding his age with a smattering of dated views.

When he first began what’s now essentially become a proper duo with Hit-Boy, it was hard to predict just how fruitful their relationship would become: their first project together, King’s Disease, Grammy win be damned, was largely just fine.

All that changed with last year’s King’s Disease II, the rare sequel that utterly and completely surpassed its predecessor. By shaving away what didn’t work and emphasizing what did, not to mention calling in some ace guests, the two ended up with not only the rapper’s best album in years, but one of the strongest hip hop projects of 2021.

One would have thought they’d rest on their well-deserved laurels (not to mention another Grammy nod), but suddenly, without any fuss, the pair dropped Magic as something of a Christmas gift for fans. Not only does it display how clearly Hit has re-energized his chosen rapper, who benefis from its brevity and laser-like focus, it damn well tops their victory from earlier in the year. If King’s Disease II felt like a confident reclamation of identity, Magic feels like a genuine masterstroke.

Although just nine tracks and clocking in at under 30 minutes, the project never feels slight. To the contrary, it feels lean and gargantuan at once. It’s Nas flexing his muscles in a way he hasn’t felt the need to in some time, making clear just how strong of a late career resurgence he intends to have. Indeed, the entire project is meant as a precursor to the approaching King’s Disease III, yet manages to feel as essential as any proper LP. It says a lot that when Nas declares “Me and Hit-Boy like the new Gang Starr” it doesn’t immediately feel like sacrilege. They’re just that good together; they suit each other that well.

While many rappers from his generation are all but fleeing their encroaching ages, Nas faces his head on, turning it to his advantage: “I’m 21 years past the 27 club,” he reflects near the opening of “Speechless”. While recapturing bygone events can often be a pitfall in hip hop with rappers getting mired in self-adulation, Nas’ recalling of hip hop’s golden age is refreshingly blunt on “Wu for the Children”; “I shoulda had Grammys when Ol’ Dirty said “Wu for the children” / Shoulda did that remix verse on “Gimme the Loot” for Biggie,” he raps, avoiding showy arrogance by the simple truth of it – and the latter bit captures an entire alternate universe of ‘could have been’s with a single line, sure to leave any fan of the genre lost in wistful thought. Moreover, he’s matured enough to recognize the paths his arrogance and pride led him to miss out on. It’s a sobering moment on a project full of them.

To that end, “Ugly” finds streetwise Nas at his most direct, bemoaning more than just the particularly tragic state of current hip hop (let’s not even discuss how many legends we’ve list in the past few years), but tackling the very greed and desperation that leads to the endless cycle of violence and jealousy, placing it within a larger historical context. When he raps, “Marvin Gaye to Young Dolph / we taking out our brothers,” the words more than sting.

Through it all, Hit-Boy is his flawlessly reliable partner, provides production that crackles and snaps in all the right moments, knowing just when to flourish and just when to leave Nas’ voice itself center stage. Some bits here are the starkest and most direct compositions of the producer’s career to date, and that’s more than saying something. Suffice to say, as corny as it may be to declare, the project is perfectly named, Magic, because it provides just that.