The 2020 surprise album from hip-hop legend Nas, King’s Disease, doesn’t expect change to come from those in power, it’s a message of perseverance for those battling a broken system.
When Nas dropped Ultra Black in August, it couldn’t have landed at a better time. Black Lives Matter protests were rife throughout the world, but especially so in America, and millions of artists were doing their part to amplify the movement with their powerful voices. The moment to be silent was done; from Run The Jewels to Australia’s Ziggy Ramo to Nasir himself, it was time to take up some damn space.
Ultra Black was a siren song for Black excellence, name-dropping Grace Jones, Sanford and Son, Isaac Kennedy, and others. Nas harnessed the juncture in history he was witnessing, set it to an old school beat, and spoke up.
“Watchin’ the global change, hop in the coldest Range/Hit-boy on the beat, this shit ‘posed to slap” – and slap it did.
Just a week later, as if Nas was aware of the album’s serendipity, King’s Disease became available in full. The LP was stacked end-to-end with trademark verses, each line rippling with social commentary, Nas painting portrait after portrait of the world as he interprets it. Since Illmatic that’s been the aim of the game, to educate and inspire – but Nas isn’t 20 anymore. The scale of his scripture has multiplied and even though many of his stories are still rooted in New York or family microcosms, the issues he speaks to on King’s Disease are world stage.
Hit-Boy, whose production credits already include Kanye West, Eminem, Nipsey Hussle, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé to name just a few, lends an aesthetic to the record that older-running fans of Nas will welcome with open arms. Syncopated samples and lazy beats elicit a mood that’s celebratory and classic without feeling derivative in the slightest; a perfect backdrop to an album that holds Nas and his history in the highest regard.
The title track dictates the ‘King’s Disease’ (later labelled as “the rich man’s disease” in The Definition) as a greed-fuelled version of the American Dream that’s antithetical to Black empowerment (“You should want every brother to make it out/But brothers want trophies, they troll for clout”). To those who claim to uplift those around them, it’s heresy to stop once you’re sitting above the masses.
King’s Disease goes on to promote brotherhood on the front, decrying notions of competition amongst a game that’s too unfair to begin with. 27 Summers is all bravado for those that rose alongside Nas (“Blowing kush clouds and we all for the smoke/Bitch, black card, black Rolls, more black CEOs”), where The Definition takes a more focused aim on the world’s flaws, from racial injustice (“Sun rising but they want us to stay in the dark”) to climate change (“Antarctica is 65 degrees/Global warming, they don’t wanna believe”), and of course, Donald Trump:
“Our youth is dead to us, they called us superpredators
Stupid words from the President’s mouth, where are his editors?”
Yet the album isn’t angry, even though it has every right to be. The two extremes of protest music are defined by those who scream in a rebel yell and those who promote hope amongst the hopeless – at one end is Rage Against the Machine, at the other is Bob Marley. A whole spectrum exists between the two, and its the choice of any artist who puts their music through the political ringer to decide where they sit.
King’s Disease doesn’t demand change, it wants you to be the change. Nas’ verses aren’t inciting violence or even reform, rather camaraderie amongst his generation and those who have followed – Nas himself now a father. In Til The War Is Won, featuring Lil Durk, many of the album’s themes are most explicitly presented, using Nas’ own failed marriage as a framework to discuss the need for family and structure amongst marginalised communities.
“Diabolical games put on our future kings
And our future queens, y’all the strongest ones
May God give strength to women who lost their sons
I give all I have ’til the war is won’”
King’s Disease is Nas seeing the faults in the leaders around him, accepting that they’re not going to change, and presenting a solution: be better than them. Keep making music, keep succeeding, keep supporting those around you. Maybe the “rich man’s disease” is incurable, but if it is to be beaten, it’s by people like Grace Jones, Isaac Kennedy, and Nas who defiantly rise against a system, beating it at its own game.
“King’s disease, I cure this shit with my art.”
King’s Disease is out now out now via Mass Appeal Records/Caroline Australia. Stream or purchase your copy here.