Review Summary: Cigars & Casinos
Nas is an artist with nothing left to prove. The New York MC has been in the game for over two decades now, with plenty of high’s and low’s in that time. While it seemed for years that Nas’s career would always remain in the shadow of Illmatic, the last few years have proven otherwise. Nas has unexpectedly seen a late career resurgence with Nassir and King’s Disease. He’s traded the gritty, terrifying, underground aesthetic for a golden throne and champagne, but his pen game is still impressive and his flows feel fresher than ever. The sequel to the critically acclaimed King’s Disease lives up to the hype, and in many regards is better than the original.
Some may argue that King’s Disease II is a simple victory lap, but there’s a lot to unpack here. For the first time in years Nas has an LP on his hands with actual replay value. Nassir had some flashes in the pan, but gets lost in the sea of other Kanye-produced projects from 2018. King’s Disease I was a bit more technically impressive, and did rightfully win a grammy for best Rap Album of the Year (albeit in a year where there were no real memorable rap projects and let’s face it grammy’s haven’t mattered in forever). Despite King’s Disease I being a return to form for Nas, it just doesn’t seem to have any ear-catching singles aside from “Ultra Black”, nor does it get the discussion it deserves in online hip-hop circles these days despite being only a year old. King’s Disease II, on the other hand, features several tracks that have the “it” factor lacking on the previous two projects.
“Rare” is equal parts catchy and creative. Nas puts his versatility on full display with switches in both flow and subject matter across the three and a half minute track. “40 Side” is an exhibit of Nas’s wisdom and experience in both the rap game, contrasting against the more modern “trap” instrumental. “EMPD 2” carries an intimidating and boastful energy, and features Eminem’s best feature verse in years. The soulful, lo-fi influenced “No Phony Love” provides a chance of pace, the choir is a fresh compliment to Nas’s gruff vocals. Perhaps the most important track, though, is “Death Row East”, where Nas gives a raw and personal account of the gang wars of the 90’s. Nas is a survivor who has become a grizzled veteran of the industry, and provides an important perspective into the so-called “Golden Era” of hip hop. Nas gives a candid and honest glimpse into his relationship with Tupac Shakur, in an extremely personal moment that adds a lot of depth to the album. Sure, there is some filler here, and some tracks fail to have the emotional depth of “Death Row East” or the catchiness of “Rare”, but for the most part this album is very solid. The only notable letdown on this project is a piss-poor, rambling feature from A Boogie with a Hoodie on "YKTV". Otherwise, King’s Disease II is both well rounded and captivating.
One of the reasons why this album works so well is the masterful work of producer Hit Boy. Hit Boy goes back to back here, proving his worth as one of the top producers in the game. The beats are cutting edge, splicing 90’s nostalgia with a more updated and refined sound. There are hints of the modern trap sound here, which combine well with Nas’s subject matter of personal growth and reflecting on a two-decade rap career. The artistic variety here prevents the album from feeling boring or repetitive, a flaw that has plagued other Nas projects from the 2000’s and 2010’s. Hit Boy keeps the focus on Nas’s vocal presence while providing a melodic and three-dimensional backdrop of sounds. Nas brings a lot to the table here, but Hit Boy’s top tier production adds an extra element here that most producers, save Madlib or the Alchemist, would be unable to replicate.
Many within the hip hop community agree there has been a lack of interesting or captivating hip hop projects since the COVID-19 pandemic killed touring. Sure, there has been a couple technically impressive projects without replay value. And sure, in 2021 we’ve had some of the big juggernauts of the industry like Tyler the Creator and J. Cole drop albums. So far, though, King’s Disease II holds the top spot for album of the year. It’s exactly what it needs to be – versatile, engaging, complex, and thought provoking, without collapsing into the same pitfalls that have plagued previous Nas albums. An album like this has been sorely needed, and King’s Disease II shows that Nas has evolved as an artist even 25 years after his “peak”. This is based and a fact.