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Nas Ruled the World. Decades Later, He’s Looking for More to Conquer

There are more frequent solar eclipses than there are instant classics in rap. But back in 1994, when Nas courted unbelievable hype — after a planet-shifting verse on 1991’s “Live at the Barbeque,” followed by the red-hot “Halftime” a year later — then delivered with the Library of Congress–inducted Illmatic, he achieved the impossible. Magic, Nas’s 15th studio album, which arrived in late December as his surprise second project of 2021, doesn’t set the stakes that high. But it’s a mature monument for a legendary rapper who sounds newly charged. Far from a downer, Magic brims with big elder statesman energy — it’s like a fine cognac that gives you wings.

For much of his career, Nas had to deal with some uniquely frustrating factors that came with being a universally-revered wunderkind. Though the Eighties gave us Paid in Full, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and Straight Outta Compton, which were all canon-worthy from the jump, none of those had to satisfy a skeptical listenership; rap was still new, and everything still felt enchanting. By the early Nineties, when Nas emerged, hip-hop’s scope had broadened, with fans in different regions of the country guarding their own carefully developed homegrown tastes. To get everyone on the same page — in an instant — was as inconceivable as solving the New York Times crossword puzzle in the same time-lapse as “The Chronic (Intro).”

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Nas spent years fighting the notion that he peaked on his first album — a fate not yet plausible during the Eighties, when the culture was so giddy for representation that fans often embraced so-called novelty records. (It’s telling that the appeal of jokey songs like “Rappin’ Duke” and “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” didn’t make it far into the next decade.) Slick Rick didn’t so much peak on his 1988 debut as languish in jail for half a decade on an attempted second-degree murder charge. A more apt comparison is Snoop Dogg, who, like Nas, faced similar criticisms after early iconic guest spots followed by a promptly celebrated classic debut. And just as the Doggfather grappled with the dreaded sophomore slump, there’s no way Nas could have captured that same lightning in a bottle with his second album, It Was Written — even if today a legion of younger fans prefer it to Illmatic.

The Internet and gravity eventually come for everyone. It’s damn near an African proverb, and the sentiment has applied to the man born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones. Right now, in 2022, some kid is doubtless posting the words “Nas lost” on Reddit from his mother’s basement. Much of the hate comes from former fans, upset about their unfulfilled fantasies of an Illmatic 2. Never mind how unlikely that ever was.

The problem with brilliant first introductions is that they make it too easy for rappers to get too comfortable going forward. And why not? If you’ve poured your entire soul into your work the first time out, it makes sense to want to fall back and reap the rewards. But this generation, inspired by the emergence of hip-hop’s CEOs, seems to have emphasized relentless grind, even if that means forgoing some of the craftsmanship that shaped the greats from Nas’s era. It’s been challenging for Nas to adapt to this climate. On his new podcast, The Bridge, he talks about working with Diddy on 1998’s “Hate Me Now,” and the way the producer pushed him to be more selective with his bars and focus on crafting hit songs. That workhorse mentality helped Nas evolve.

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He’s at his best when his work ethic is balanced by his signature splendidly crafted couplets. Some of his best projects, like 2001’s Stillmatic and 2002’s God’s Son, find him effortlessly splitting the difference between marquee star and street-corner griot. (On the contrary, Nas’s Achilles heel is the intermittent laziness that has plagued projects like 1999’s I Am and Nastradamus and 2008’s Untitled.) There’s something in his aura that makes us want to hear Nas push himself to the limit. We want to hear him focused and in pocket, invoking that public housing radiator hiss with acute neighborhood characterizations — sharp as welfare-line cheese.

Magic captures some of that intensity with pristine production from Hit-Boy, who also contributed heavily to Nas’ 2020 LP King’s Disease and its 2021 sequel, both of which marked an upward trajectory after the disappointing 2018 Kanye West collaboration Nasir. The California-bred maestro has aroused a newfound hunger in Nas, inspiring him to link up with like-minded veterans — King’s Disease II boasted a headline-gobbling verse from a long-M.I.A. Lauryn Hill; a focused DJ Premier is one of only two guests on Magic — and rap better than any 40-something label founder has a right to.

In some ways, Magic recalls 2012’s Life Is Good — a critical success by most accounts, and an olive branch of sorts after his failed marriage to Kelis, with songs like “Bye Baby,” where Nas mused, “At least I can say I tried, plus enjoyed the ride.” He sounded remorseful on Life Is Good, but, notably, didn’t take much responsibility (”Never played you, I prayed we would stay together”). In subsequent years, as Kelis has accused him of physical abuse, and Nas has in turn thoroughly denied the charges as “fictitious,” some listeners may have tuned out. 

Magic is something else: Not exactly an atonement, but a gracious gift to the day-one listeners who are still with him. After several hiatuses and some questionable artistic decisions in the past, Nas appears to have found contentment in remaining prolific. Here’s to anticipating this elite storyteller’s next chapter.

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