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Best albums of 2021: Nas’ ‘King’s Disease II’

The album provides a road map for seasoned emcees who want to remain relevant

The Undefeated asked our writers to pick the most important albums from an insane year. Find the rest of their selections here.

There is always the implied question of what we do with our seasoned hip-hop artists. Unlike other genres, in hip-hop, older artists don’t typically get a residency in Las Vegas or widespread invitations to perform their latest hits. In fact, the closer they get to turning 40, the more likely they are to rock the scarlet W. And once a rapper is labeled “washed,” those invites completely dry up.

Rappers such as Nas, Jay-Z and Black Thought are the exceptions. They have managed to become even more appreciated with age. Yet, if hip-hop is going to remain the most influential musical genre since the ’60s, then valuing our seasoned artists needs to be the norm and not an exception. Artists bear some responsibility in establishing this. In King’s Disease II, Nas provides an imperfect yet effective road map for a seasoned hip-hop artist to remain culturally relevant.

Nas during at the first annual Hip-Hop Youth Summit at York College in Queens, New York.

Scott Gries/ImageDirect

King’s Disease II feels like a corrective to the first King’s Disease released in August 2020. For example, the original King’s Disease has a song called “Full Circle” where Nas spends most of his time sharing secondhand relationship advice bestowed on him by a trainer. “Wisdom” like “Stick and move/Different rules apply to different women/Some women into licking women/Some women’s independent/Some women want brothers who educated.” As generic as this “logic” is, Nas gave us too much of a character we don’t know and not enough of a glimpse into his own personal growth.

Surprisingly, Nas also missed the mark in the song “Ultra Black.” There are distinct lines in the song that feel like a love letter to Black people — until it doesn’t. With, “We goin’ ultra black/I gotta toast to that,” I raised my glass with Nas. “Grace Jones skin tone, but multi that/Multiple colors, we come in all shades, mocha black.” Then he ruined the song with, “No matter your race, to me, we all are Black.” Nas decided to interrupt a celebration of Blackness to make this song more inclusive to non-Black people. Nas was a socially conscious rapper long before white people gentrified the word “woke,” so this move felt foreign and scattered.

Almost a year later, he released King’s Disease II and it felt more reflective and self-assured. The album opens with a song that frames the body of work. “The Pressure” is an intimate song from the perspective of a grown hip-hop artist who we have seen get married, divorced, raise children and survive culture-changing industry beefs. He raps about the pressure of being in this industry and refusing to feel like he’s “made it” until we can say it collectively as a people.

As one of the ultimate signs of his growth, he acknowledged that creating strong boundaries in life has been his “greatest creation” besides his children. And as he proclaims on the fifth track, Nas is indeed in “rare form.” In the song “Rare,” he raps about “young gods” having meaningless beefs and curbing his own ego. The former is a spot-on observation about the current state of hip-hop and the latter is the direction the industry needs to move in. They are both examples of self-correction — which is a pivotal component to artists avoiding the “scarlet W.”

If sustainability is the goal, then hip-hop artists should self-correct in their music as they grow and change. This requires maturity and the ability to actually self-reflect. Those of us who grew up blasting Illmatic and pretending we forgot “Oochie Wally” even exists want to hear about who Nas is now. King’s Disease II is at its best when it does this, but Nas shines brightest when he manages to be fluid yet consistent.

In the song “Brunch on Sundays,” Nas showed he is clearly keeping his ear to Black Twitter streets with lyrics such as, “Stay out of Black women’s business less you’re investing in it” and other subtle lines in the song that feel like a rebuke to the owner of a restaurant who disparaged a group of Black women for twerking in his establishment — all of which was widely discussed on Black Twitter.

Yet, he still consistently gave us the Nas we fell in love with when he set the streets on fire with Illmatic. “Memory Lane,” a standout track from Illmatic, invited us to experience the world as Nas saw it. He was a tour guide for our feelings and we willingly went wherever he took us. The same could be said about the song “Death Row East” on King’s Disease II when Nas pressed rewind and took us back to the emotions we felt during the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls beef. In both cases, it’s indicative of master storytelling, which is consistent with who Nas is as an artist.

King’s Disease II also provides “major keys” for seasoned artists by illustrating how powerful it can be when rappers pass the mic to Black women. The song “Nobody” with Lauryn Hill is a beautiful example of this. Hill makes the song distinguishable with lyrics such as, “Now the world will get to see its own reflection” which feels like an observation of the selfish practices that were magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. Hill continues with lines such as, “And if you’re wrong and you’re too proud to hear correction/Walk into the hole you dug yourself, f— a projection” — a lyric that can be interpreted as an introspective analysis or cultural criticism. Either way, it’s a gift listeners get to open when seasoned female emcees are featured on an album even when they don’t have a current song on the Billboard charts.

Adding Hill to King’s Disease II was smart, but there is still something to be said about the “leaders” of hip-hop failing to be more vocal about issues that harm Black women. On King’s Disease II, it’s abundantly clear that Nas views himself as a leader. In the song “Store Run,” Nas flexed his identity as a hip-hop vet with the authority to send younger emcees to the store. It’s a culture-specific reference. I’m a grown woman with a child of my own, but when I visit my grandmother’s house on the holidays, any of my aunties can still send me on a store run — with or without giving me money. Their request is a clear awareness of their status in my life, my compliance is recognition of it. They are my elders and family leaders.

Yet, for all the ways Nas reminds listeners of his elite status in hip-hop, King’s Disease II failed to lead in one significant way — directly addressing abuse Black women suffered in the hip-hop community. Historically, Nas has never shied away from calling out racial injustice and inequality. Yet, in the time between King’s Disease II and his previous album, there have been collective conversations about hip-hop’s refusal to protect Black women. None of which Nas addressed.

Nas isn’t alone in this. A lot of successful and seemingly “conscious” rappers have been silent about it. Sure, Nas doesn’t have to, but as a veteran emcee well aware of his leadership status, he can and should be on the front end of this. Leaders lead and the absence of this was a missed opportunity. For artists looking for longevity in hip-hop, it should be said that if they are going to acknowledge their elite status in the culture, then they have to leverage it to speak against the abuse of Black women in hip-hop (and beyond).

Aging is inevitable, but remaining relevant in hip-hop isn’t. Like Nas illustrated in King’s Disease II, artists don’t have to be perfect to move the crowd for generations, but they have to master the art of learning to incorporate contemporary subjects in a way that’s consistent with the skill sets they’ve perfected. As pivotal as that is, it’s still not enough. Fans want music to reflect the growth of an artist. This requires introspection and enough humility to adjust your content when needed. Most importantly, seasoned rappers have to be unafraid to leverage their power to lead. King’s Disease II gave us this blueprint and the chance to explore missed opportunities from a hip-hop “leader,” which solidified its spot as an album of the year.

Shanita Hubbard is a writer, adjunct sociologist, sorors fellow and author of the upcoming book Miseducation: A Woman's Guide To Hip-Hop.