Updated: Jan 14, 2022
The magic that I felt when I heard Rakim say, “I Ain’t No Joke, I used to let the mic smoke,” was supposed to be a once in a life time hip-hop heroin fix that I would never experience again. Little did I know, the now world famous Queensbridge Projects were cultivating a rare 1 of 1 artist with dreads on top of his fade that would deliver rhymes across three decades that defy logic and the laws of physics. Not only did Kid Wave hit the Earth like a comet in 1994, he has somehow—someway, managed to deliver content in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s that has inspired his fans to think outside of the box on a myriad of fronts.
From the subtle gems about investing cash in stock on Nas Is Like—to highlighting the importance of Black unity even though we are Distant Relatives—to embracing vulnerability and sharing lessons learned about marriage on Life Is Good—to evolving and embracing success in a responsible manner on Kings Disease I and Kings Disease II—to understanding that you are never too old to create Magic. Nas has mastered the art of spitting profound lyrics that are littered with gems that illuminate how to navigate the explosive land mines of systemic oppression, violent environments, and most importantly the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Throughout King's Disease I and II, Nas places an emphasis on sharing his thoughts on how to manage being a King of one’s self while eluding the common pitfalls of gluttony, selfishness and the detrimental impact that neglecting one’s mental and physical health can have on our quality of life. On a few occasions, Nas even warns his audience that success comes from hard work and strategic planning and that it’s foolish and unreasonable to attempt to ride the coattails of others to riches. While similar themes from KD1 and KD2 are present on Magic, Esco takes the time to let listeners know that he is in such rare form lyrically that listeners are watching him take an unexpected victory lap after running a marathon that should have left him out of breath many moons ago. Imagine Michael Jordan pulling off a third 3-peat when he played for the Wizards. Imagine LeBron being one of the best players in the NBA at the age of 37. Imagine Nas being so sharp at his craft at the age of 48 that his harshest critics have to invent new unreasonable critiques to justify their embarassing perspectives. Beyond being a phenomenal lyricist, the brilliance of Nas is that he has always seemed to be cognizant of the unfair criticisms that are consistently offered up by Nas enthusiasts and the over the top hate (confused admiration) from bias critics with an agenda. But instead of bending to the unreasonable demands of critics, Esco has consistently opted to follow his own North Star, which has likely resulted in 6 albums that are bonafide classics to reasonable listeners. True hip-hop fans who have been able to set aside their preconceived notions of what a Nas album should sound like are enjoying an unprecedented run that is simply—Magic.
After spinning Nas and Hit-boy’s latest project more times than I can count, I decided it was time to see if I could explain why Nas is the lone artist of any genre to produce music that I have consistently enjoyed across three decades.
It's hard for me to fully articulate why and how Nas’ lyrics have continued to resonate with me from childhood to adulthood, but I'll try my best to provide some insight. During my final semester of college, I played The World Is Yours nonstop because it embodied how I felt as my graduation date neared. Attending and graduating from college for me wasn't always a foregone conclusion. During my formative years of elementary, teachers assumed I was a delayed learner because I struggled to pronounce certain words. Overcoming the confidence issues that my speech impediment spawned in elementary school and the economic uncertainty of affording college were just a few of the reasons that I felt like the the world was mine when I graduated college.
Beyond The World Is Yours serving as the backdrop for my monumental accomplishment of graduating college, Esco's lyrics have propelled me through profound losses, and inspired me on the creative front. While writing my first novel, I played Stillmatic (The Intro), What Goes Around and Black Zombies non-stop to find inspiration to articulate our (African Americans) perilous plight in America. When unexpected losses happened such as losing family members or close friends, Heaven and Warrior Song's lyrics provided solace that’s hard to explain.
"Cause I been high I been low, searchin' for a way to go,
Every single night I pray
And Lord I'm on this battleground, lost just waiting' to be found,
I guess it's just a warrior's way"
While most listeners will agree that Nas has plenty of songs that provide inspiration in times of trouble and a bevy of lyrics to commemorate once in a lifetime accomplishments, his detractors most often point to his choice in beats or argue that his music isn't listener friendly in festive environments. I would argue that those listeners don't know how to have a good time or are conveniently ignoring some key songs in Nas' expansive catalogue (including features) such as You Owe Me, Hate Me Now, If I Ruled The World, Hot Boyz remix, Made You Look, It's Mine, and several other songs that they like to pretend don't exist or don't knock.
Even Nas' staunchest supporters sometimes underrate his versatility. While his lyrics and storytelling are often praised as being top notch, his flow and ability to casually float on R&B songs or unorthodox instrumentals is rarely acknowledged. See the songs listed below for examples of Nas killing songs while stepping outside of the box that those stuck in the 90s would have loved to have kept him in.
1) Love Is All We Need
2) Finer Things
3) Did You Ever Think remix
4) Must Be Nice remix
5) Thank God I Found You remix
6) Get To Know Me (Another example of Nas killing the same beat twice, see Hip Hop Is Dead and Thief's Theme for the other example)
7) Street Dreams remix
8) We Major
9) Distant Relatives (yes, the whole album)
10) Rare (Word to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, the Golden Child didn't miss a step even though Hit-boy incorporated a masterful beat switch)
Do you get the point now? Or should I keep going?
Nas' versatility and willingness to take chances that other artists refuse to take has been the essential reason he has been able to live up to the meaning of the name that Olu Dara and Fannie Jones bestowed upon him. Nasir has managed to be hip-hop's Protector and Helper across several decades because his creativity and talent has inspired and embolden him to dictate his own path and pace while brushing off the wishes of over zealous Nas enthusiasts (are they enthusiasts or individuals just repeating an illegitimate narrative?).
At the inception of his career, Nas shared that he was bold enough to drop out of school based on advice that he received from his father, and that was years before he would record his first album. Imagine being crazy enough to drop out of school in the 8th grade and your younger brother Jabari following suit. No school meant more time to spend in and outside of Building 40-16 with the Goodfellas. For many, the choice to drop out of school at such a a young age would probably mean their fate would be a mention of the deceased on Prodigy's heartfelt Veteran's Memorial. But for Kid Wave, it meant he would go on to become hip-hop's lone artist to be 21 years past the 27 club and still somehow—someway delivering potent music that makes listeners rethink the notion that hip-hop is destined to remain a young man's game forever.