There’s an unwittingly poignant sequence at the end of Magic, Nas’s fifteenth studio album. The final track, “Dedicated,” is pure middle-aged ennui couched in wistful pop-culture references, the sort of preoccupied nostalgia trip Jay-Z perfected on 4:44. Nas name-drops Mike Tyson, Kimora Lee, and Carlito’s Way, alluding to some compelling ideas without really exploring them; it’s breezy enough that you can almost forgive the kids-these-days grumbling. But the chorus—“I dedicated my life, my life,” a simple repetition of an evasive half-statement—is tantalizing in its elision. At 48, the Queens native continues to enjoy the institutional acclaim afforded one of rap’s most prodigious talents. A survey of his latter-day catalog yields a melange of short-lived crossovers and self-indulgent concept records, the cynical musings of the bitterly divorced. To what did you dedicate your life, Nas?
Magic points to hard-earned craftsmanship, the humble cultivation of a blue-collar métier. It asks that you overlook his mid-career miscues and late-career misanthropy, which is just as well—his listeners have long clamored for a return to ’90s pragmatism, and Magic is the most meat-and-potatoes Nas record in years. “Speechless” casts back to the It Was Written aesthetic, with a spoken intro and pealing mandolin instrumental. A flashy performance with a modest purview, it relays a judicious street code (“I’m tellin’ it like it is, you gotta deal with the consequence/When you run in a n***a’s crib, n***a, you better be ready to sit”) with knowing winks at the fourth wall (“Only thing undefeated is time/The second is the internet, number three is this rhyme”). If it’s fan service, it’s the best Nas song in a decade.
The album maintains a sprightly 95 bpm clip, opportune for its focus on verbal acrobatics over Nas’s usual sermonising. Anything faster is liable to trip him up; anything slower and he’s practically comatose. Unsurprisingly, these songs are far more habitable than the haranguing fare of 2018’s Nasir and 2020’s King’s Disease. Similar to 2004’s “Good Morning,” “Ugly” flips an atmospheric premise (“It’s ugly outside, it’s muggy, it’s money outside/One hundred and five Fahrenheit, thunderous skies”) into a metaphor for societal rot, a tactile slice of life relative to his familiar, narrative-driven methods. “The Truth” packs battle rhymes with bright imagery: “Galactica glaciers, eighty-eight karats, immaculate paystubs/Them n****s do a crime, I drop a rhyme, it’s the same rush.” Nas is a pointillist, better at writing couplets than albums, and Magic proves he’s still a transcendent rapper when he allows himself to be.
But he’s never content with low-stakes grandeur: on “Ugly,” he promises yet another King’s Disease installment for 2022. Although Magic steers clear of Nas’ Achilles heel—his notoriously poor judgment of his own strengths—it’s compromised by the presence of Hit-Boy, a thoroughly B-list producer who’s helmed the last three Nas records. Hit-Boy’s depthless beats are stately at a distance but chintzy up close, like music played through a mangled iPhone speaker. The saccharine melodies of “Hollywood Gangsta” and “Wu for the Children” each sound a half-chord off-key, and when he tries to conjure golden-era ambiance with digitised synths, it lends the air of a Vegas revue. Not to play fantasy sports, but DJ Premier is literally right there doing the turntable cuts on “Wave Gods.” Did no one think to ask him for some loops?
You could knock Magic for being backward-facing, but then again, all of Nas’s music is backward-facing. It’s charming when he revisits his own gospels, but the nostalgia act would be easier to swallow if it weren’t so resentful—the King’s Disease records are joyless Grammy bait, demanding that award committees ignore the elephant in the room. (Needless to say, they’ve complied.) The specter of his ex-wife turns up as a scapegoat on “Ugly” (“It’s grown men jealous outside/It’s grown-ass women that’ll have you set up to die”) and “Wu for the Children” (“One girl for the rest of your life, is that realistic?/Some had told me they like when you call ’em all types of bitches”). These are the grievances of a Bitcoin millionaire, music defined less by what it is than by what it’s not: druggy, minimalist, or improvisational.
But this is what Nas does: If Illmatic and It Was Written have an expository flaw, it’s that their inmates, capos, and Queensbridge Park winos are welded to their fates. His characters rarely exhibit agency of their own, which becomes a convenient narrative device when your wife walks out and the audience’s gaze drifts from New York to Atlanta. Nas needn’t be a tragic figure, and his endless cataloging of things taken from him—record deals, a happy family, a seat at the throne of hip-hop—is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. All that’s left is to go through the motions.