Review Summary: Hold the champagne.
Nas’ spectacular resurrection these past few years has been an incredible feat. After coasting hard enough on his legend status that he hit dry land and spent a decade-plus sending smoke signals, the MC linked up with producer Hit-Boy and started delivering bangers like his prolonged slump was a short vacation. With the increasingly-lukewarm reception to Magic 2
, however, it’s safe to say the honeymoon’s over and the rapper’s revival--something of an underdog story given his career trajectory--is in danger of being a victim of its own success. M2
was sluggish out of the gate and lacking in ideas, coming across more like a glamorized B-sides collection than a genuine sequel to its namesake. An obvious lesson when concerning diminishing returns would be “Less is more,” but considering that this is a review for Magic 3
, another finale to another trilogy--well, welcome to more Nas in 2023! I’m not here to ask if any of this is necessary--inevitably, Nas feels like he’s on a roll, and given the superb reactions to his modern-day streak of LPs, you can’t blame him--or whether it should
be made, since artists should art whenever they want to art. Yes, Nas sounds as energized as ever in his current era and he’s dealing some serious bars across the 15 tracks composing Magic 3
. At the same time, it sounds as if the Hit-Boy partnership is finally losing steam--something evident in a record that is stretched thin (cough
15 tracks) and inconsistent, capable of reaching commendable heights and consequently worrying depths.
It’s a case of having too much of a good thing. This Hit-Boy + Nas connection has reached its sixth collaboration, and still the formula is unchanged; it’s the same mixture of old-school East Coast prod, light jazz, soul influence, and some funky bass staged under a nostalgic atmosphere. Plenty of gold’s still in them hills--”No Tears” lays down an ominous synth in its refrain that pairs wonderfully with Nas’ delivery, and “TSK” brings an enticing intensity--but it’s also played out, like “Never Die” and its generic beat surrounding distressingly simplistic “I’m still here!” themes, and the relatively forgettable, drawn-out “Japanese Soul Bar.” Beyond some occasionally domineering drum beats, the bombast and swagger of KDIII
feels largely absent, and attempts to reclaim it are, well, a bit tired after five other records of the same approach. Some choices are just baffling on their face, such as the grating vocal sampling on “1-800-Nas&Hit” that sounds like a chipmunk drunk on helium and the equally conflicting vocal sampling on “Superhero Status.” These tunes are stacked together without reason, generating an experience akin to a singles compilation that’s only barely held together by that overarching classical rap aesthetic--a very evocative and effective aesthetic, in fairness, but one that this duo has gotten too comfortable with.
For his part, Nas’ performance is impressively airtight throughout; his passion resonates inside every lyrical passage he lays out, whether he’s detailing a vivid narrative or offering some trademark charisma-laden braggadocio, and his commanding tone--one half debonair gangster, one half the world-weary hip-hop veteran--has retained its attention-grabbing ability. “Superhero Status” is an ideal playground for the rapper’s colorful wordplay, and “I Love This Feeling” is a blissful tune that perfectly encapsulates Nas’ resurgence, balancing delicate bars reminiscing about the past and equally powerful phrases that glorify the present. It seems like Magic 3
starts to hit its stride when the emcee strips back any semblance of persona and speaks solely from the heart--something embodied by the run from “Based on True Events” to “Sitting With My Thoughts.” The former, structured into a two-part suite, is Nas’ storytelling mastery at an apex, weaving together lyrics that touch on old flames, cautionary tales, and lost friends. It peaks in the first portion when Nas is stuck on the thought of Jasun Wardlaw, known as Half A Mill, who passed from suicide:
“Was it self-inflicted? Somebody came to get you?
Maybe I'm paranoid
Somethin' sabotagin' the path he was on
But you passed on.”
When searching for answers, desperately attempting to justify a loss that he can’t entirely process, Nas then remembers a similar situation with TJ, known as Killa Black, and deftly maneuvers from that to make a broader connection:
“And your light remains, rest up to TJ
That's Havoc' brother, Killer Black, went a similar way
I used to call down to the crib, you would answer the phone
And years later, you were in shootouts with some of my mans with the chrome
Wow, so foul
How do projects turn to a war zone?
This is the place we call home
Drama, homicide, suicide in our father's eyes
We programmed to survive, but it's love that we don't prioritize”
In here and the following “Sitting With My Thoughts,” there’s an understated beauty to how vulnerable Nas makes himself, and it adds a gentle brush of melancholia to the Magic
project. Yet Nas too is guilty of purveying a sense of exhaustion, with the difference being that his vocals predictably dominate the mix, thereby accentuating any misstep. The record’s inconsistency infects him; on “Pretty Young Girl,” a poorly-written love song is kicked off with a commentary on Hurricane Katrina that has zero bearing on the track or disc on the whole, metaphorically or otherwise, and gives way to arguably the LP’s worst refrain of “Long braids, brown eyes / Weight 135, she like 5'5 / I see them thighs on her / Make me wanna multiply / She's a queen, her dad a G, I know hе rock to Nas.”
Much like Hit-Boy’s production decisions, some of Nas’ choices are perplexing. He travels from wearing his heart on his sleeve throughout “Sitting With My Thoughts,” then haphazardly swerves into the cringe-inducing “Say my life ain’t litty” interior of “Blue Bentley.” He says “Real man ain't supposed to be in his feelings, that's a crime,” with a straight face on the stereotypical rich-man-living-well “Jodeci Member”--did “Based on True Events” happen?--takes some cliche shots at criticism on “TSK” paired with a random shoutout to Donald Trump, and wanders aimlessly about “Japanese Soul Bar” without ever saying much of anything new. The audience knows by now that Nas is cool, will remain cool, and he’s old; these revelations are a broken record. Even at his strongest, it can be difficult to ignore how hard Nas relies on what’s always been familiar to him, and while it makes for a superb comeback at first, the desire for something fresh begins to outweigh the positives.
If this indeed marks the final work between the fabled NY emcee and Hit-Boy, it’s a rather bittersweet conclusion. What began as such an unpredictably amazing run eventually slowed down to a comfortable, albeit mediocre zone where neither contributor upped the ante and instead remained complacent. Both are undeniably talented--for all the criticism, Nas sounds unbelievably vibrant for a rapper now into his 50s, doubtlessly capable of another decade of captivating material, and Hit-Boy’s production is as technically proficient as always--yet they’ve left a lot of potential on the table. Perhaps it was always about striking when the iron was hot, consequences be damned, but even the best underdog stories come back down to Earth eventually. Magic 3
is everything special about this 6-LP run and certainly an excellent effort from modern rap’s most surprisingly stellar partnership, and it’s everything that might have been left behind. It was a hell of a time while it lasted.