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Nas: Life Is Better

The legendary New York rapper celebrates over 20 years of strife and success on his introspective new LP King’s Disease. We take a look at some iconic Nas tracks, new and old, that showcase his growth.

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There is a long list of accolades that cement Nas’ legendary status. From three decades of rap-pioneering, with classic albums like Illmatic, starring in cult classic films like Belly, or striving to create a platform for creatives with the launch of Mass Appeal. There are so many things you have to think about when painting the legacy of the always innovative Nasir Jones; it’s a dense masterpiece.

Here in 2020, a global pandemic has altered the music industry to the point that music festivals are taking place on Minecraft. Where’s the normality? Well, a part of it lies in the new Nas album King’s Disease, which is a triumphant return to the rap game, as he enlists legendary producer Hit-Boy and proves he doesn’t have the word ceiling in his dictionary. This isn’t an ordinary Nas album, but a collection of necessary reflections, learnings, and appreciation. To celebrate its release, we’ve picked some of Nas’ biggest singles to compare with his current mindset on King’s Disease. Life is weird right now, but for Nasir Jones, life is better.

Check out the list below and stream King’s Disease here.

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01. N.Y. State of Mind / ‘Blue Benz

“I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death,” Nas raps on ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, the breakout track from his classic debut album Illmatic. At the age of 23, with a hunger for turning your creative mindset into a living, why would you want to sleep? It’s a track that samples Rakim’s ‘Mahogany’, and with the complex lyricism and picturesque nature of the words, sets him up to be the heir to the hip-hop throne. It’s produced by the now-legendary Gang Starr member DJ Premier. 1994 was a very competitive year in hip-hop. Ready to Die from The Notorious B.I.G, and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik from OutKast just to name a few timeless releases from that year. Nas didn’t have it easy. Yet, with a song like ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he made an undeniable splash.

Flash-forward to 2020. We have an older Nas (47 to be exact), his hunger is no longer directed towards having a seat at the table, but to owning the table itself. This is apparent in ‘Blue Benz’, with lines like “Just opened my new office, West Coast branch, place my teacup on the saucer, it’s Esco, man” epitomize the growth of Nas. The ambitious spirit of his 1994 self never left, it was just redirected. It’s no longer about proving his legacy, but solidifying it. ‘Blue Benz’ tells you exactly what it is. It’s not about washing up, it’s about getting that ocean view; a testament to the grind of hip-hop.

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02. I Gave You Power / Car #85

‘I Gave You Power’ is an iconic Nas track from his sophomore album It Was Written, released in 1996. It finds Nas rapping from the perspective of a gun, symbolising the effect of weapons in his life, and his upbringing in the Queensbridge Houses. Lyrics like “My creation was for blacks to kill blacks,” represent the injustices that he and the people in his community faced, painting a bigger picture of the injustices around the world.

‘Car #85’ also looks at his upbringing and life, but in a more reminiscent way, almost like Nas is finding the silver lining in adversity. The song speaks with a cab service as its subject, harkening back to a coming-of-age Nas in Queensbridge observing his happenings. It reflects Nas’ current mindset of accepting the bad and finding the good, a theme that occurs throughout King’s Disease.


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03. Hate Me Now / King’s Disease

Nas and Puff Daddy’s ‘Hate Me Now’ is a certified anthem. The strings in the beat, the swagger of the Diddy hook. It’s undeniable. It’s a track that symbolises the success of Nas at the time of I Am…. (1999) You could hate him, but what the heck did it mean? He was at the forefront of rap music.

Looking at the title track of King’s Disease, the growth is apparent. The flows, style and hunger are all still there but his palette has matured. Instead of a triumphant rap extravaganza claiming his place at the top of rap, ‘King’s Disease’ is more of a commentary of where Nas is at now.

On ‘Hate Me Now’ he spits “First rapper to bring a platinum plaque back to the projects.” On ‘King’s Disease’, he raps “It’s so lame, this media circus greedy and worthless.” It’s no longer about the accolades for Nas, it’s about the cultural effect. While the Nas of 1999 was a young man aiming for the top, the Nas in 2020 contrasts with a target of shedding light and having clarity in his life.

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04. Hip-Hop Is Dead / Replace Me

Hip-Hop Is Dead was somewhat of a provocative album for Nas. It criticized the state of hip-hop in 2006, around the prominence of crunk music and the dominance of Southern hip-hop. The frustration was apparent in the album’s title track, with Nas proclaiming “If hip-hop should die before I wake, I’ll load an extended clip and body them all day.”

In 2020, Nas’ irritation with rap is seemingly gone. It’s apparent on the King’s Disease cut ‘Replace Me’. Instead of denying the evolution of the genre on this track, he embraces it, bringing in the unique styles of Big Sean and Don Toliver into the world of Esco. He vents in a vulnerable manner on the first verse, allowing Don to showcase his finessed skills on the hook, with Sean providing his catchy style of love-rap on the latter end, with every act sticking to the theme of a failing relationship. This isn’t the Nas in 2006 who thinks hip-hop is dead, but the man who recognises the evolution in expression and honesty we hear in the genre today.

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05. The Black Bond / Ultra Black

The name’s Nas, Nasir Jones. On his 2012 Life Is Good quick-cut ‘The Black Bond’, Nas affirms his excellence. Having earned his place amongst the luxurious imagery he paints with lyrics like “Esco, dress code, it changes, Harrods in England back to the star-spangled labels in my closet hanging.” These braggadocious bars are the culmination of decades of hard work, expression, wearing his heart on his sleeve. After all, life is good for Nas at this time, he deserves to flex it.

8 years later, the good life messaging changes. The mission on that track was about personal success, but on his 2020 standout ‘Ultra Black’ it’s about the successes of his people. Instead of focusing on his personal journey, Nas centres the track around the journey, impact and influence of the Black community. Nas is not flexing for himself, but for his family, his friends, his contemporaries. Throughout his career, Nas has strived to make it clear that there’s more than just one Black Bond; there’s a worldwide league of avengers.

Nas’ journey is a hard one to sum up in just one article, it spans three decades across twelve impactful studio albums. He’s starred in cult-favourite films and is widely considered as one of the best rappers of all time. How do you do a man like that justice? Not to worry, he’s done it for us again and again, and with his latest album King’s Disease, his growth is clearer than ever. Nas’ social commentary has gone from critical to celebratory and his attitude from competitive to embracing. He’s gone from penning his hunger, to huddling in a worldwide community. Nas proclaimed in 2012 that Life is Good, but in the unprecedented year of 2020, Nas aims to make life better, for himself, his community and for his fans listening.