This story was originally published December 28, 2021
Nas has released three critically-acclaimed albums in a little under 18 months. 30 years into one of Hip-Hop's most storied careers, and the man born Nasir Jones is on a streak unlike any we've seen from him. That is not hyperbole: Nas hasn't had a three-album run like this ever. The nadir after his first two albums is well-documented, and even after the creative comeback that was 2001s Stillmatic, his next several projects volleyed between brilliant and overstuffed. As great as this run from Nas is; the commentary reveals that many are still impressed by an over 40 rapper releasing such strong material. But maybe we should all be less impressed when a great artist makes great art.
There's no denying Nas is riding a critical hot streak right now. The Queensbridge legend has found an elusive chemistry with Hit-Boy; over the course of three releases, the two have been musically in-sync. In Hit-Boy, Nas has found the production guru that seems to bring out the absolute best in his talents as an emcee. Hit-Boy was a toddler when Nasir Jones was being hailed as "the next Rakim" but the age gap seems to have sparked inspiration in both men.
“A lot of times I walk in the studio and his headphones is on, he’s like, ‘Yo, check this out,'" Nas told Ebro Darden this year. "Something he’s already working on. And as soon as I hear it, it’s like, that’s the one. He’s like my Quincy [Jones], you know what I mean? He has that."
Over the years, I've watched as Hip-Hop conversations started to consistently sound more and more like sports conversations. Rappers were described as if they were all musical gladiators, competing in a tournament for Hip-Hop supremacy with easily-quantified wins and losses. The idea of a recording artist's "prime" isn't as finite and tangible as an athlete's; for all intents and purposes, a recording artist can continue to make recorded art for as long as they want to. There are no physical restraints and skills don't necessarily diminish over time. What Hip-Hop has historically lacked, it seems, is an industry that places value in artists as they age.
A middle-aged artist experiencing a resurgence isn't anything new. Over the years, we've seen latter-day greatness from icons like Bob Dylan, the Isley Brothers, Miles Davis and more. Hip-Hop's over-40 greats aren't any less capable of finding their creative muse; we can celebrate an artist like Nas being on a brilliant run without diminishing it by suggesting he shouldn't be able to do this anymore.
Hip-Hop artists like Busta Rhymes, AZ, Masta Ace and others have released some of their most critically-acclaimed work in the past two years. Nas may be the most high profile right now, but he doesn't stand alone as an over-40 emcee capable of delivering something inspired.
King's Disease arrived at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and served notice that Nas and Hit-Boy were doing great things together. The project earned Nas his first Grammy, and wound up on several "Best Of" lists at the end of the year. He arguably topped it with King's Disease II this past summer, as Nas and Hit-Boy continued to showcase their newfound synergy on an album that was somehow even more polished and assured than it's predecessor. In December, the surprise album Magic dropped to even more goodwill from fans and critics.
And now, everyone's talking about the rarity of rap longevity again. But one perusal of YouTube will show anyone who cares to look that elder rappers aren't letting their skills languish. Big Daddy Kane is more nimble on the microphone now than he was in his heyday; Scarface is still one of the game's most remarkably consistent after three decades; Chuck D is still bringing the noise in his 60s. The problem with age in Hip-Hop is that the gatekeepers still act like older rappers are the exception, instead of creating lanes for more to thrive with heightened visibility.
"Survivor’s guilt is interesting," Nas mused in an interview with Vice. "The longer you stay around, the more of a target you become. That’s the danger of staying around. You don’t want to be the one hit wonder, you don’t want to have a short career, but if you do have a long career, then you are a target for so many people."
The idea that rappers' longevity is still treated as something novel says a lot about who consumes and who controls Hip-Hop. As a culture, you can see a multi-generational, cross-regional, international soul and spirit that drives this thing. But as an industry? The capitalist interests of the music industry have often resulted in Black art being reduced; and in the case of Hip-Hop, it became fashionable to reduce Hip-Hop to it's baser tendencies. For white consumers and gatekeepers, that image of rappers as musical gladiators sparring in a never-ending tournament is more interesting than the idea of "adult contemporary" Hip-Hop.
Nas isn't rapping like someone half his age. No, not at all. He's rapping like a man nearing fifty years old who has honed his craft; whose vision has matured, and who has finally found a collaborator who consistently pushes and inspires him. The rapper has his less-than-stellar projects and they're scattered throughout his career; that isn't a detriment--it's a testament to career longevity. It's a dismissal of that longevity to suddenly act like a rapper making good music is a measure of youth. It's a measure of talent.
The longer you stay around, the more of a target you become..."
“I feel like the next thing I do, if I was to work with Hit-Boy on the next thing I do, I think that we might do something that is going to be magical,” Nas said to Ebro this summer. “I think what we have is magic. And I think the next thing we do would have to be the next page. And that, to me, excites me, that possibility."
Of course, we now know what "magic" Nas and Hit-Boy had waiting in the wings. This is a collaborative streak that shows no signs of slowing down, and as someone who has been a Nas fan since the beginning, it's great to see. For a rapper who always struggled with inconsistency, this run is a testament to his artistry and craft. But let's give Nas his due without acting like we're surprised. The man has always been this good. Maybe we should start seeing careers as having peaks and valleys, instead of acting like rappers are supposed to bow out just because they're of a certain age or have been around for a certain amount of time. We should want more elder voices in the game. The greats should get better, shouldn't they?