Palace Intrigue: On ‘King’s Disease III’

The stakes aren’t as high as they ought to be on Nas' and Hit-Boy's third collaboration. 'KD3' proves great art requires some engagement with the wider world.
By    February 2, 2023

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Pete Tosiello was second-hand embarrassed for every website that said Beyoncé had the best album of 2022.

As much as anything in his own catalog, The Blueprint is the album responsible for Nas’ second wind. During rap’s late-’90s gold rush, the Queens native labored under the weight of industry mandates, releasing bloated, lumbering full-lengths pegged to crossover singles. When “Takeover” hit airwaves in 2001, the ensuing feud lit the proverbial fire under Nas’ ass: the rousing Stillmatic was rushed into stores, an Odyssean homecoming after years in creative wilderness. Paired with 2002’s moody, introspective The Lost Tapes, it announced Nas as a rapper for all seasons, making good on the erratic vigor of his late-’90s output.

More importantly, The Blueprint provided Nas with a template — ahem, a blueprint — for the wide-lens audio memoirs of his latter-day catalog. His work took on an air of strenuous soul-searching, lonely descents rife with survivor’s guilt. The somber affect allowed for a convenient sleight-of-hand. Nas could delve into an uncertain past, without arriving at any revelations of consequence; he could entertain his demons, without having to contend with them. Street’s Disciple was the Marriage Record, Life Is Good the Divorce Record, but neither supplied actual insights into his relationship or state of mind. He took stock of his life in sweeping terms, alighting upon neighborhood figures and industry politics, flitting from snapshot to snapshot without context or commentary.

These records are cannily written and expertly performed, with breathtaking moments and bedeviling compositions befitting a master at his peak. Nas’ 2000s arc cemented his status as rap’s great miniaturist, each entry highlighted by vivid characters, piercing observations, and linguistic economy. In his thirties, he became fixated on delivering political and autobiographical treatises, but couldn’t see them through. Untitled is cagey; Street’s Disciple retreats to gimmicks and marginalia rather than approaching its subject head-on. These albums aren’t self-indulgent — as was often alleged — so much as restless and fidgety. (The best of the bunch, tellingly, is Hip Hop Is Dead, which abandons its concept two-and-a-half songs in.)

2012’s Life Is Good isn’t transcendent by Nas’ or anyone else’s standards, but its rapturous reception proved the success of the trick. In framing the project as a breakup album — rap’s Here, My Dear, if you will, although I won’t — Nas effectively got credit for a record he didn’t make. Life Is Good feels like a vulnerable confessional, but it’s not, really: it’s moony nostalgia porn, with a few oblique references to his ex and his kids. If it wasn’t honest or revealing, it was charmingly modest, his positioning as a wistful divorcé ensuring a successful transition into middle-aged bankability. The summer I turned eighteen, I saw Nas play a 600-cap venue in New Haven during the brief Untitled tour; he’s headlining a one-night engagement at Madison Square Garden this month.

If I’m cynical about Life Is Good — a pleasant enough album, and a lifeline for one of my favorite rappers — so is Nas. Its success proved his champions couldn’t (or wouldn’t) distinguish ambiance from depth, and he’s been dipping into the same well ever since. For all its opacity, Life Is Good at least offered a compelling setup; without the hook of a Hollywood divorce, the King’s Disease trilogy defaults to name-dropping, self-aggrandizement, and vacuous investment advice. It’s Nas’ greatest heist: three hours of Gary Vaynerchuk monologues shrouded as stately, contemplative manifestos.

It must be said that the rapping on King’s Disease III is exquisite. Nas seemed to lose the beat around 2015, plying a clipped, barking flow on the ill-fated NASIR, bulldozing his way through the syncopation of “Nas Album Done.” But KD3’s opener “Ghetto Reporter” distills his technical heft: the syllables are painstakingly patterned, yet he slides over the drums with an ease rarely glimpsed. During a 2020 Breakfast Club appearance, Nas fawned over Firm comrade AZ’s delivery, gushing, “It’s like water.” The superlative applies to KD3’s vocals, which are as frictionless and instinctual as any in his catalog. “Recession Proof” subsists on quick cuts: “Movie lobby, they shot him out of his two Huaraches/I’m on a yacht, old smash with a newer body.” He teases out the image in the second verse: “Knicks game up in the seats, I barely hit the floor/Not tryin’ to sit across from somebody lady I hit before.” It’s the sort of smirking rich-guy shit you’d hate coming from a stockbroker, but love hearing from an aging rapper.

The writing on KD3 is similarly unlabored, forgoing the prismatic, everywhere-at-once vantage of Nas’ 2000s work in favor of a stream-of-consciousness approach. It’s a palliative for his usual nerviness, but the free-associative technique means he’s left to his own devices. A connoisseur of mass-market middlebrow, Nas stays up nights thinking about Ray Liotta and Quincy Jones, deifying them with verses unspooling like long-winded online sports columns. There’s a graceful way to do this — I’m thinking of Snoop Dogg’s winking dad-raps on Neva Left — but it requires more self-awareness than Nas has on offer. Between the foggy recollections of “Thun” and the street-code sermons of “Legit,” the stakes aren’t as high as they ought to be, the stock tips useless if you’ve never experienced the windfall of a turn-of-the-century rap blockbuster.

If the ‘90s references feel like Easter eggs (“Still got the same flame behind me from the ‘Hate Me Now’ video,” he declaims on “I’m on Fire”), KD3 is most concerned with burnishing Nas’ already sterling legacy. The persecution complex that animated Stillmatic borders on paranoia in his angstier moments. On “30,” he lambasts Pete Rock over a royalties squabble, which feels like punching down given the institutional acclaim Nas enjoys post-Life Is Good. The industry harbored him through allegations that would have undone a lesser figure; he’s finally got the Grammy he clamored for. Certain moments recall the indignant KRS-One records of the mid-2000s, but Nas doesn’t have to restore his reputation — if I wanted to be lectured, I’d apply to grad school.

Hit-Boy does what he always does on Nas albums. The horns, violins, and chintzy drums sound like they were programmed on an iPad, with treacly key signatures and sped-up vocal samples melodramatic enough to make the Heatmakerz gag. It’s safe and conservative, without any swing or edge, each sample clipped just so. The swampy bassline on “Recession Proof” recalls an early EPMD production, but the digitized synths and drums are crisp as a starched shirt; “Once a Man, Twice a Child” is sludgy, like you’re hearing it through drywall. Hit-Boy knows what a good beat sounds like — this is the guy who did “Backseat Freestyle,” for goodness’ sake — but his prescriptive chords and tempos belie a limited concept of Nas as an artist and a figure.

Nas fans aren’t above pandering, just don’t treat us like fools when you do it. The retconning of Nas as a Salingerian figure — hip-hop’s disappointed godfather, who gave us Illmatic and was never repaid — wipes away decades of weird, unwieldy, and often great work. Sure, Street’s Disciple wasn’t Illmatic, but what is? The goofy concept records, the creative missteps, the swings and misses make for one of rap’s singular catalogs; an honest appreciation would reconcile, if not embrace, the lowlights. Instead, KD3 takes refuge in empty ceremony. “First Time” rehashes “Can’t Forget About You”; “Beef” does the “I Gave You Power” thing, only with beef instead of guns; there’s literally a song called “Reminisce.” It’s cute enough, in an Archie Bunker sort of way, but great art requires some engagement with the wider world.

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