In a career that stretches more than 30 years, Nas has unloaded classic albums and collected platinum plaques while becoming a veritable businessman and an emblem for rap’s golden era. Just as impressively, he’s helped push the notion of aging gracefully to new levels. After releasing the pristinely lackluster Kanye West-produced album Nasir in 2018, he connected with Hit-Boy to create a series of compelling LPs that combined modernized boom bap soundscapes with a hungrier Nas, a combination that yielded some of his most inspired work over the last 20 years.
The Queensbridge legend looks to continue that trend with Magic 2, a sequel to his second 2021 release. While spurts of drab production prevents this one from reaching the heights of any King’s Disease albums or the first Magic, it’s a snapshot of an artist who’s still retained his game shape.
Working at its best, Magic 2 pairs competent Hit-Boy production with acrobatic flows and self-mythology that collapses the distance between block-dweller and a venerable rap elder statesman. For “Office Hours,” he turns a Dells sample into the battleground for a revolution, letting off vivid flashes of ’80s ephemera while painting a portrait of a forceful, but benevolent Godfather in a world full of Fredos. While his 50 Cent reunion for the track isn’t as grand as you’d hope — enjoyable as it was, Fif’s verse falls well-short of a full 16 — it’s a touch of yesteryear that gives off the impression of a man who’s come full circle with his own career. On “Pistols On Your Album Cover,” he pays homage to Boogie Down Productions while interpolating a famous lyric from his one-time rival Tupac Shakur for a solemn juxtaposition of the past and present. Cruising over a tranquil Hit-Boy beat, Nas serves up a poignant mosaic of day-to-day survival, broken dreams and the ironic dual tragedy that accompanies gunshots: “Single mothers on that EBT just tryna feed they seeds/Scammers and boosters livin’ nice off of EDD/CCTV, all the cameras’ll shoot ya/Soon as you let a shot off, it’ll damage your future.”
Even-keeled and imbued with the type of perspective that can only be accrued over decades, tracks like “Office Hours” and “Pistols On Your Album Covers” are quintessential Nas; ferocious, yet regal — nostalgic, but forward-thinking. His couplets can be incisive and venomous or warm and yearning. Sometimes, he just talks his shit, as he does on “Motion,” the best song Magic 2’s got to offer. Here, he unloads a flurry of luxurious vignettes that are as show-offy as the techniques he uses to distill them; his rhymes ricochet off one another like a cueball: “The flesh a vessel, I’m not obsessed with death/I manifest what’s best, I’m ghetto tested, bless.” Combining those bars with an easy-to-remember hook and a beat that’s once eerie and exhilarating, “Motion” is one of those ones.
Nas’ knack for sharp observations and even more lethal rhymes remains intact, but the soundscapes skew a bit too bland, with Hit-Boy using predictable samples and even more predictable ways. “Earvin Magic Johnson” feels like an end-of-semester assignment for Soul Samples: 101; “Slow It Down” sounds like a leftover 9th Wonder beat Murs and Little Brother didn’t think was good enough. “Black Magic” includes an interesting sample of Memphis rap, but it ends up playing out like a customary Nas-Hit-Boy track, which isn’t bad, but things can be a little one-note. It’s generally fine, but the collective effect is colorless, making the album feel more monotonous than it should. Musically, it’s a clear step down from King’s Disease III. The production there could be bland too, but there were splashes of surreality and brighter samples that made Nas’ words pop.
Still, Magic 2 has a high floor as a rehashing of a proverbial tried and true formula of a Nas and Hit-Boy collaboration. It can still be magical, but you’re left with the sense that Hit could use a few new tricks.