Review Summary: They asked me what I was doing, they said I was already proven
When he's on top form, 'magic' is an incredibly apt word to describe Nasir Jones' rapping ability. Showcased in no uncertain terms from the outset of his career, his methodical, purposeful, and punchy bars blend intelligence with thuggery in a way so seamless it has bordered on sublime countless times within his discography. That he has had some wobbles in his output is undeniable, but any hip-hop head will tell you that Nas is the gold standard for the genre. The gradual elevation in quality between Street's Disciple and King's Disease II was followed up by the personal and nostalgia-tinged Magic, a lithe yet remarkably consistent selection of songs that channel the energy of Nas's most esteemed albums whilst simultaneously colouring it with a quintessentially modern style, broad in scope but contained in topicality. The introspection showcased here is perhaps more hard-hitting than ever before, predominantly thanks to the expressive style of the lyricism and delivery which feels consistently amiable and almost off-the-cuff in its targeted conciseness. It is not only one of the best offerings Nas has produced during his modern era- it is one of his best overall, tying together the thread that all of his previous albums had unspooled in a way that allows him to truly be himself in the context of his hip-hop persona, but also in terms of his own vulnerability and love for the game.
From the backspinned, introductory moments of opener 'Speechless', replete with mischievous trilling strings, the steady, consistent beat evokes a nostalgic callback to classic Nas records, his flow reminiscent of the weaving bars of Illmatic. There is a steadfastness to the content here, observed in no uncertain terms by the personal focus, flavoured with preoccupations that are both embittered, and resolute. Following track 'Meet Joe Black' cements this with a frenetic chorus and fluxing, mischievous bassline swallowing the beat. The convergence of modern production with a retro paintjob works in the rapper's favour, and brings together Nas's diverse stylistic iterations without ever feeling egregious or clumsy. The merging is furthered by the lyrics on this cut, with his declaration of,
Leave me out of the weasel sh*t,
be cool when you see me,
I'm higher than all the rap diva sh*t,
the hood know you pussy so we don't buy or believe in it.
As much as such lines trace back the nefarious gangland origin story of Nas, the almost grandstanding manner in which he asserts his position is one of supremacy. He's been there, done that, and although the tough-guy thuggery is as convincing as it ever was, it is undercut by a dismissive attitude that suggests maturity and growth. Such perspective serves as a pinpoint for the artist in the present stage of his career, but also as a new, fresh assertion of dominance, backed up by a convincing track record and brash reconciliation of his rhyme persona and personal voice. Of course, it is not the first time he has attempted to annotate his previous in a realistic way, but the intensity of focus here feels more compelling than it has been previously. It still feels appropriately intimidating where necessary, but nuanced and careful with it. Echoing this sentiment is later album track 'Building', an ode to hustling and general gangland concerns. Despite providing a raw view of the lifestyle such activities entail, sometimes in worrying detail, it is still home to thoughtful soul-searching and ruminations on the cost of such pursuits, both physical and psychological. Backed up by a huge, booming beat and perpetually descending hook, it balances between thug anthem and wide-eyed admonishment in a remarkably incisive way, and is certainly a choice cut, full of impressive flows and memorable bars.
The more considered, whimsical strains of the beat on 'Wu for the Children', with its yearning imagery and simultaneously self-congratulatory and humble lyrics serve almost as a mission statement for the album at large- an acknowledgment of status offset by a lucidity that balances both sides of Nas's poetic coin. The rhymes are as dexterous, and have an air of bombast inherited from the scrambling wordplay of Illmatic. Make no mistake- Magic is an entirely different beast, much more world-weary and enlightened, but there's a sense of conflicting idealism that pervades both records, which could be seen as a tenuous link coursing through all of the rapper's albums. 'The Truth' is a perfect example of this link, being a stark and even-handed put-down to modernised gangsta fetishisation, open to interpretation as both a reprimand, and an assertion of status. The flows trickle like water over another consistently descending hook, as Nas berates scene posturing and the romanticising of criminality that goes with it. It slickly and subtly critiques his own early work, whilst simultaneously putting himself on a pedestal in a way that, somewhat contrarily, feels grounded due to the legwork the rapper has put in for the scene. His statements are bold and deliberate, eloquent and, when set against the smouldering beat, tacitly threatening. It achieves the same end that a cut like 'NY State of Mind' did, and whilst it is nowhere near the lofty heights of that classic outing, it serves as an attempt to evaluate and find meaning in the modern incarnation of the image he was then purveying, thus rendering the piece deeper on a thematic level. These careful insights make up the bulk of Magic's power, and through the power of his ubiquitous wordplay and individual musical vision, Nas is able to orchestrate a succinct and compelling journey through his history, and changing viewpoints.
Magic gifts listeners with multitudinous bars that sit shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the best passages from It Was Written, and beats that manage to capture the typically compelling bravado of a Nas record whilst simultaneously acting as a callback to the rapper's early era. This iteration of Nas represents the maturity to Illmatic's youthful abandon; the realistic counterpoint to Hip Hop Is Dead's cynicism (a record offhandedly dismissed via soundbyte during the outro of 'Meet Joe Black'). The comparative lack of rabble-rousing may be at odds with the rapper's established aesthetic to a degree, as Magic is an album of veiled sentimentality, but despite this the more lively compositions bang hard, and the slower moments feel appropriately heartfelt. Following a slow climb in quality after the slump exhibited in Nasir, Magic's brevity is also a strength, managing to isolate and hone in on a broad range of ideas in typically stylish fashion but without padding out the release in a way several of the artist's previous records had been. It feels breezy overall, yet also weighty and purposeful; a comparatively brief statement after a long and impressive musical journey. It's not Nas's best record and would probably not even sit in his top 3, but as a representation of his career, it's a brave and nuanced statement regarding himself, the scene, and the world overall. The production is slick and glossy, every beat is well-judged and authentic, and every bar shows exactly why he's so revered. The World Is His, indeed.