Whenever Nas announces a new album, the rap world pulls up its collective chair ready for the result. It’s been that way since 1993 when he dropped his classic debut single “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” ahead of his magnum opus Illmatic.
Nas has a long history, or at least in the first half of his career, of dropping several classic album lead singles. But the inaugural single “Ultra Black” from Nas’ new album King’s Disease, which was released on Friday (August 21), was a buzzing social media item that bled into the album rollout.
However, it wasn’t an account of the song’s quality. It was because he dissed one of 2020’s biggest pop-rappers Doja Cat.
“Sometimes I’m over-black, even my clothes are black,” Nas spit. “Cash Money with the white tee and the soldier rag/We goin’ ultra-Black, unapologetically Black/The opposite of Doja Cat, Michael Blackson black.”
If Nas didn’t refer to Doja Cat’s alleged racist online chats from years ago that surfaced earlier this year, or criticized her fair-skinned shade to juxtapose comedian Michael Blackson’s dark complexion, what would the replay value of “Ultra Black” be? (Author’s note: If Nas’ lyric was an allusion to skin color, wouldn’t his “Multiple colors, we come in all shades, mocha black” be a contradiction?)
This review of “Ultra Black” is neither a subversive way to defend of Doja Cat nor a knee-jerk reaction to the track. If it was actually the latter, then this column would’ve been published immediately after “Ultra Black” was released on August 14. So, there’s been enough time and room for the single to grow on us after playing it on repeat.
And this isn’t to say “I want the old Nasty Nas” persona again. Like he said on his song “The Cure” from King’s Disease, he’s not going back to that for nostalgia’s sake (“They say they want the old Nas back/Play the Clue tapes for old verses”). We have to respect his artistic growth but can be certain “Ultra Black” isn’t among his classic album lead singles.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising this summer, “Ultra Black” has empowering lyrics. It pertains to Nas’ songwriting formula, which brings Black history nuggets into nearly everything he writes. He namechecks revered disco singer and actress Grace Jones, the 1970s TV show Sanford and Son and blaxploitation films, his American Express Black credit card and Colin Kaepernick’s NFL saga, to name a few. He also keeps it current in today’s COVID-19 pandemic (“Talk with a mask on, the freshest breath”).
However, it doesn’t have that absolutely-must-have-this-in-my-playlist feel to it compared to the aforementioned from Illmatic, “If I Ruled The World” from It Was Written, “Nas Is Like” for I Am…, “Got Yourself A Gun” from Stillmattic, “Made You Look” on God’s Son, or “Thief’s Theme” on Street’s Disciple.
Regardless of those album’s great, mid-level or boring overall assessments, those tracks were dope enough to make you check for his new album.
“Ultra Black” also moves Nas in the right direction, away from the underwhelming taste his Kanye West-produced album Nasir left in many of his fans’ mouths in 2018. Plus, Nas linked with revered producer Hit-Boy to create “Ultra Black,” which could mean Nas is listening to the longstanding fan chatter about his underwhelming predilections for beats.
His semi-syncopated lyrical cadence over the mid-tempo beats with its resounding five-note piano and keyboard, punchy bass drum are in pocket with many of Nas’ fan favorites and his biggest hits. Nas always delivers his best over piano or organ loops such as “NY State Of Mind,” “Memory Lane,” “The World Is Yours,” “Affirmative Action,” “I Can” and “Purple.”
To defy today’s cancel culture, this isn’t binary in which “Ultra Black” should make you dismiss if it’s isn’t categorized as either a classic or sub-classic. There are two arguments to what makes a classic record. One is the timing, the context of how it was created and when it was released and time will tell. Even though it could be at the right pace since the pandemic has people in quarantine and not partying this summer.
The other argument is that a classic song can’t grow on you. It has to be such a surefire track that you feel the moment you hear it and want to turn it up the second time and every time thereafter. If you don’t recall it as some touchpoint in your life, then the single’s just not at that level.
Bottom line is if you don’t get hyped when you turn it on in the coming months or years, then it doesn’t represent classic material.
Now, allow us to dig into the full entree.