I read the reviews of Kings Disease II with a quizzical look on my face. Were they listening to the same album as I was? The Pitchfork review savaged the album politely, much like being chewed on the ankle by one of the Queen’s corgis, whilst not being able to kick bring yourself to kick the creature in the face and be done with it.
Kings are always subject to politics, and no genre is more blessed and cursed with politics than hiphop/rap. Kanye continued to polish the turd that is Donda in public while performing a reality show of his own, (now he is not a Kardashian – he has to get his fix from somewhere) in the Mercedez Benz Stadium in Atlanta, selling seven million bucks in merchandise at the second “Listening Party”, while the music just fizzled out into a haze of religioso Christianese posturing with not a line or a beat or a flow that even approached tasty, let alone the genius early Kanye exhibited. Everyone was looking towards The King of New York for a buzz, for something with some meat on it, something that said something and said it well. After all what else is there? When rap is great, it says something and says it skillfully. The beats providing a framework to the flow, and when it works, it is the best thing since Jack Kerouac got on the road.
Mr. Jones, AKA as Nas, Monarch of the airwaves, at least on the East Coast, old skool cool, the real deal, one of the survivors from the days of the legends and the wars which took out some of the best of them, Nas remains an icon in his own time, and there lies the rub. Nas is just too revered to not have to take a kicking from the poison pen dwarf critic gang, who see it as their moral duty to bring the Ruler to his knees for the crime of taking a good look at his position in life, the guilded cage, the moral outrage of the Kings Disease. After all what kind of disease are we looking at here? A moral porphyria? A build up in the bloodstream of too much for too long too many times? Or is he just tired? Tired of the store runs, tired of having to assert his dominance, tired of fighting. Tired of writing? “Doctors couldn’t even detect my disorders” he claims in Composure, “Vote yes on Hit-Boy, bitch, I’m the city spokesman”, in a self effacing subtle twist on ‘hitman’ gangland metaphor. Nas sees himself as more Robin than Batman, but he is still the King, still speaking the truths of the only city that really matters. The pressure of being Nas is intense, but he has to keep his Composure, not an easy task. A subtle dig at the pretender to the throne of the opposite coast – Kanye, a contender who once shone bright but got lost in a morass of reality TV and hype, follows post haste: “All that actin’ and fakin’, I can’t take part in it/I’m washin’ my hands with the soap opera shit.” Kanye take note…
This is Nas’s strong point, the ‘God’s son across the belly’: once Nas takes aim, he never loses it. Forget all this modern naming and shaming shit, Nas is marrying a fresher brighter sound with old skool sensibilities and flow.
These beats are fresh, they remind me somewhat of early Tyler The Creator – melodic, lo-fi chill wave cooler-than-thou with a hint of Shakespearian doom and sinister intent, he wraps his classic flow around them effortlessly. This album is relaxed without falling into the trap bear-trap of style over substance. After all, Nas’s 90s cred won’t allow him to make a pure trap album, the King has standards. “Imagine Lil Uzi on a primo beat…Imagine Nas on a ‘migo beat” he muses, allowing time for a small snort of derision from the listener. Nas is the Mohammad Ali of rap – he doesn’t waste movement, he doesn’t waste words, he is compact and to the heart of the matter, right on for the knock out blows. Of course these fights get harder as time goes on and the Kings Disease get ya softer and more coddled, but the animal, the shark, the prize-fighter comes out from under the ‘ice’ (‘not making snowmen’) and can still throw a sharp right hook towards those who nip at his heels and try and take his crown.
Back to “Gods’ son across the belly” – This is a leitmotif than runs across multiple albums and songs, originally a killer putdown towards Jay Z. A thread of gold that links and reminds, perhaps, and for sure a brilliant line, but surely the King has friends who are around to tell him that the ‘gods son’ jab has been mined for all the gold it is going to give up. The first time it was shocking brilliance, the second….ok…I’ll give it to him, but to see it reoccur in The Pressure, was disappointing. What was beyond genius in Ether has now had all the shock and awe taken out of it. I wish Nas would drop this particular lyrical bone before he chews it to death. I’m all for recycling, but there is no shortage on of words and ideas, nor on his extreme talent: enough already! The little in-jokes work their magic – for instance in EMPD2 feat. Eminem, Nas raps about ‘sauce and spaghetti’ words, giving the nod of respect to his Detroit counterpart’s ‘Mom’s Spaghetti’ track, in which Eminem spoke about his early struggles, as Nas now contemplates his own later ones. “Fuck the stimulus, give me some interest” they rap, talking about society’s ills, the state of his Kingdom, ‘Escobar’ troubles, and trying to dig up the corpse of hiphop and speak life into it. This is one of the best tracks on the album, with its fast spat lyrics and social commentary. Pandemic trauma, ‘block trauma’, it is all just melting into one crisis for the Kingdom of King Nas. Nas cares even if he is ‘eating Michelin star’ food and his supply lines of fuel are up and running while the city runs out and suffers. I had to smile at the namedropping, not of the finest that Escobar had to offer, though he makes sure we know he has that too, but it was the ‘down here with the rest of us’ in a pandemic junk drug binge of ‘tylenol 3 and dayquill’ lean pickings that had me smiling. Nas is still a man of the people.
Store Run is a success, a summer infused gorgeous nostalgic track where the aging King muses on the past and the present. “Im from the era of razor blades and coke dust” the King declares, namedropping Scarface and Tony Montana, asserting his Kingdom and his credentials. Lyrically beautiful, open and honest, he ain’t ready to give up the crown yet. My heart was made glad by the King seeing the state of his Kingdom and dealing with the problems of the day. Nas calls out Anti Asian hatred – “People getting battered down/Asian hate getting passed around/ Tiger happy, both his parent’s lives matter now” he spits at the hatred and the cruelty. Nas is keeping track of his Empire, he still ‘owns the store’, and judiciously forms his sentences to fit. I respect that.
Of course, not every line hits its mark, but when he is on, there is no one who can touch Nas, and in Kings Disease II he is ‘on’ far more than he falls flat. This is an album you can put on in the background, that doesn’t demand your attention or bring you down too far, whilst still remaining interesting and fresh and engaging. It is actually a beautiful piece of music, a cool vibe, a summer album for a pandemic world that needs some nostalgia – “moments you can’t relive”. He knows he is good, he knows he deserves his Empire, even if it might lead to this existentialist pain – the ‘Kings disease’ of the gilded cage and social distancing that for Nas is a greater leap than six feet. From the trauma of growing up on the block and surviving, to the trauma of being removed from it by money, success and fame, to the sadness of the losses of friends and rappers. We are “one city, one country, one state” and he has to find ‘someplace to be nobody’ in order to be able to write and survive: Nobody outlines the root of the problem, the cause of the disease, and Lauryn Hill adds the spit and anger to Nas’s flow.
Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to be impressed, it is too easy to throw arrows at Nas, and he knows there is nothing he can do which will satisfy some people. Go old skool and be accused of being irrelevant, update and piss off the purists. Kings Disease II is not perfect, it is the product of a world weary malaise, but it is pretty damn good, and better than anything else I have heard released this year, or as Nas puts it “Nas is Good“…and that is the difference between Nas and Kanye. Nas IS good….Kanye mistakenly thinks he is God, but he isn’t any good, at least not now.