Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns
Nas Is Having the Greatest Comeback in Rap History
Compared to other MCs who defied the test of time, the run Nas is on is by far the greatest comeback in rap history.
The art of the comeback isn’t easy at all. It’s not guaranteed for any artist, let alone in hip-hop, a genre that isn’t always receptive to older, aging rappers. With age in rap comes a complex and upstream battle against constantly shifting (and fickle) trends in tastes, a younger, hungrier generation of wild upstarts, increased scrutiny over their art and actions outside the music, and constantly adapting to the endlessly chaotic music business. Now 49, Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, has been navigating these challenges his whole career with a fearless sense of trial and error through his music. To be clear, while his worst is far superior to many at their best, the musical missteps he’s made throughout various points of his four-decade-long career have nearly cost him his G.O.A.T. status on several occasions. But this five-album comeback run — from 2020’s King Disease to the recently-released Magic 2 — he’s been on for the past three years with platinum hit-making producer Hit-Boy is different. Compared to other MCs who defied the test of time, the run Nas is on is by far the greatest comeback in rap history.
Since his 1994 breakthrough debut Illmatic famously earned five mics in The Source, the expectations for Nas albums have always been exceedingly high. This often led to subsequent projects either being unfairly scrutinized — like his mainstream, polished follow-up in 1996, It Was Written — or harming his musical credibility if an album fell short of his own high precedent, as was the case with 1999’s Nastradamus, 2018’s Kanye West-produced NASIR, and 2019’s heavily anticipated yet disappointing The Lost Tapes 2. Prior to 2020, he was taking further heat for his questionable beat selection too, the rapper having been dubbed “the worst beat picker in hip-hop” (though the validity of that, while having some truth, never was accurate).
Hit-Boy and Nas attend a birthday party for Monica Bittenbender & Simon Kim at Cote Korean Steakhouse on May 18, 2021 in New York CityPhoto by Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Everything changed when Nas and Hit-Boy linked for their first effort, King’s Disease, that same year. Their newfound chemistry resulted in a notable pairing, with Nas returning to hip-hop as a fully restored and upgraded version of the unpredictable rap virtuoso he became known as. The passion and bond the two created through extensively working together harnessed a redefined core sound still loyal to Nas’ roots, while freshening his style in a way that meshes with today’s block-hugging stars like Lil Durk and Fivio Foreign.
In a 2020 interview with Okayplayer following the release of King’s Disease, Hit-Boy explained the kind of production he wanted to give to Nas, describing it as “Some classic shit, but with a fresh approach.”
“When you listen to ‘Blue Benz’ and ‘27 Summers,’ the beats switch up, come on man. We’re already in 2021 with the sound for real, it’s different levels to this shit. It’s seamless,” he said. “It’s not a beat switch where it fucks your head up, damn this shit belongs in the song. There really hasn’t been expert-level production like this since, fucking, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Watch The Throne. King’s Disease is a derivative of what I learned listening to them projects.”
Fast forward to Magic 2, the sequel to 2021’s Magic, and that same refreshing creativity can be felt and heard in the album’s sampling, production, and lyricism. The pair have dropped consistent, Grade-A quality albums over three years in a bloated and tumultuous era in hip-hop, with Nas still captivating generations of hip-hop fans beyond his older core through these releases.
“A lot of times I walk in the studio and his headphones is on, he’s like, ‘Yo, check this out.’ Something he’s already working on,” Nas said of Hit-Boy in a 2021 interview following the release of King’s Disease II. “And as soon as I hear it, it’s like, that’s the one. He’s like my Quincy [Jones], you know what I mean? He has that.”
There have been other legendary MCs who’ve also miraculously given Father Time a flying knee to the nuts. JAY-Z, Nas’ one-time heated rival turned ally, has maintained his longevity way beyond his youth through many facets in music and business. Five years ago, he permanently sealed his discography as one of the most superior ever with 2017’s 4:44, released many, many years after “retiring” in 2003. However, even though many of those post-retirement projects have been game changers — particularly 2007’s American Gangster and 2011’s momentous Kanye West collab Watch The Throne — the quality of his overall discography post-2003’sThe Black Album is spotty, with polarizing works like 2009’s Blueprint III and 2013’s Magna Carter Holy Grail. Overall, it doesn’t live up to his first monumental eight albums.
Nas - 30 (Official Video)www.youtube.com
At the same time Nas is having his victory lap to immortality, Atlanta’s firebrand street pastor Killer Mike is having his own run to glory as an impactful elder statesman. He recently released his first solo album in 11 years, Michael, after redefining his career as one-half of Run The Jewels with producer El-P. While it can be said that Killer Mike has never released any trash whatsoever, the impact compared to what Nas is doing isn’t the same considering he doesn’t carry the same veteran status.
In a 2021 interview with i-D magazine promoting King’s Disease II, Nas mentioned the growing stakes in having as long of a career as he’s had, and reckoning with survivor’s guilt while acknowledging and celebrating his legacy as one of the most successful and respected rappers in all of hip-hop.
“The longer you stay around, the more of a target you become. That’s the danger of staying around,” he said. “You don’t want to be the one-hit wonder, you don’t want to have a short career, but if you do have a long career, then you are a target for so many people.”
In many ways, Nas is the hip-hop Robert Downey Jr., having his Iron Man moment after having been counted out. Having endured so many uncertainties in his personal and professional life, Nas was always deeply aware of his career mortality, having watched so many others come and go while trying to adapt to a constantly changing musical landscape.
As he expressed in that same i-D interview, he’s just getting started, creating a blueprint for those that may want to follow in his footsteps.
“I haven’t done it all yet and I have so much ahead of me. I realized that I am my own movement. And I don’t just talk it, I’m walking it,” he said. “I want to be something that people can see and know, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’”
And in having rap’s greatest comeback, Nas is doing exactly that.
Mark P. Braboy is the sentient form of your weirdest flex who just so happens to be a music journalist and photographer based on the South Side of Chicago. He’s been published in 10 of your favorite outlets, interviewed music legends and rookies alike, and is a proud alum of Jackson State University. Also stans for cannabis equity for black and brown people and weed songs you’re sleeping on. Follow him @Shootyourmark
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