Nas: Magical Album Review | Pitchfork

There is an unconsciously gripping sequence at the end of Magic, Nas’ fifteenth studio album. The final track, “Dedicated,” is pure middle-aged boredom, embedded in wistful pop culture references, the kind of preoccupied nostalgic trip Jay-Z perfected on. 4:44. Nas name drops Mike Tyson, Kimora Lee and Carlito’s Way, alluding to some compelling ideas without really exploring them; it’s so lighthearted you can almost forgive the grumblings of today’s kids. But the chorus – “I have devoted my life, my life,” a simple repetition of an evasive half statement – is seductive in its denial. At 48 years old, the Queens native still enjoys the institutional fame afforded one of rap’s most prodigious talents. An overview of his contemporary catalog yields a hodgepodge of ephemeral crossovers and self-indulgent concept records, the cynical musings of bitterly divorced people. Unpleasant what have you dedicated your life, Nas?

Magic points to hard-earned craftsmanship, the humble cultivation of a working-class profession. It asks that you overlook his mid-career miscues and late-career misanthropy, which is a good thing — his listeners have long advocated a return to ’90s pragmatism, and Magic is the Nas record with the most meat-and-potatoes in years. “Speechless” throws back to the It was written aesthetic, with a spoken intro and an instrumental sounding mandolin. A flashy performance with a humble purpose, it passes a judicious street code (“I’m tellin’ it like it is, you gotta deal with the consequent/When you run in an***a’s crib, n***a, you better be ready to sit”) with knowing winks at the fourth wall (“Only thing undefeated is time / Second is internet, number three is this rhyme”). If it’s fan service, it’s the best Nas song in ten years.

The album features a lively 95 bpm clip, apt for its focus on verbal acrobatics over Nas’ usual preaching. Anything faster can trip him; a little slower and he’s practically comatose. Unsurprisingly, these numbers are much more habitable than 2018’s high-profile rate Nasir and 2020 disease of the king. As in 2004’s “Good Morning,” “Ugly” turns an atmospheric premise (“It’s ugly outside, it’s stuffy, it’s money outside / One hundred and five Fahrenheit, thundering skies”) into a metaphor for social decay, a palpable slice life in relation to his familiar, narrative methods. “The Truth” packs rhymes with clear imagery: “Galactica glaciers, eighty-eight carats, flawless paystubs / Them n****s do a crime, I’m dropping a rhyme, it’s the same rush.” Nas is a pointillist, better at writing verses than albums, and Magic proves he’s still a transcendent rapper when he allows himself to be.

But he’s never satisfied with low-stakes grandeur: on ‘Ugly’ he promises another disease of the king deadline for 2022. Although Magic steers clear of Nas’ Achilles heel – his notoriously poor assessment of his own strengths – it is tainted by the presence of Hit-Boy, a thoroughly B-list producer who has helmed the last three Nas records . Hit-Boy’s depthless beats are stately at a distance, but chintzy up close, like music played through a mangled iPhone speaker. The sweet and sour melodies of “Hollywood Gangsta” and “Wu for the Children” each sound a half chord off-key, and when he tries to evoke a golden age vibe with digitized synths, it gives the air of a Vegas revue. Not to play fantasy sports, but DJ Premier is literally there the turntables do on “Wave Gods”. Hasn’t anyone thought of asking him for some loops?

you could knock Magic because it’s backward-facing, but again, all of Nas’ music is backward-facing. It’s charming when he revisits his own Gospels, but the nostalgic act would be easier to swallow if it weren’t so hateful – the disease of the king records are joyless Grammy ace, demanding that price commissions ignore the elephant in the room. (Needless to say, they complied.) His ex-wife’s specter shows up as a scapegoat on “Ugly” (“It’s grown men jealous outside / It’s grown women who let you die”) and “Wu for the Children” (“One girl for the rest of your life, is that realistic?/Some had told me they like it when you call them all kinds of bitches”). These are the grievances of a Bitcoin millionaire, music is defined less by what it is than by what it isn’t: sad, minimalist or improvised.

But this is what Nas does: If illmatic and It was written have an explanatory error, it is that their prisoners, capos and Queensbridge Park winos have been ordered to their fate. His characters rarely display their own power, which becomes a useful narrative tool when your wife walks out and the audience’s gaze wanders from New York to Atlanta. Nas doesn’t have to be a tragic figure, and his endless cataloging of things taken from him — record deals, a happy family, a seat on the throne of hip-hop — is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. All that’s left is to go through the motions.

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