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Nas & Hit-Boy | Magic 3 Review

On Sept. 11, 2011, Hit-Boy put it into the universe that he was going to produce a Rihanna single and three songs on a Nas album. What he initially manifested 12 years ago has developed into a legit musical bond unseen before from a young, hotshot producer and a grizzled, legendary rapper. In just three years, Hit-Boy and Nas have created six albums and two trilogies, totaling 80 songs. Magic 3 is the final album between the two, released on Nas’ 50th birthday, as a symbol of aging gracefully with no time limit to his success.

It’s unfortunate that Hip Hop and longevity don’t have more positive connotations, creating this idea that once you reach a certain age, your rapping skills diminish. Granted, many of the greats don’t go out on top (for every 4:44 there’s a Crown Royal). But Nas, who we’ve been listening to for almost 30 years, has re-written that narrative by releasing both his King’s Disease and Magic series congruently. The pocket he’s in with Hit-Boy is like Killer Mike meets El-P, two spiritually connected souls who become better versions of themselves every time they work on music together. It’s why fans didn’t seem surprised when Nas said he was halfway through his next one on “Abracadabra” from Magic 2, as their spark continues to produce some of Nas’ best material in years.

Magic 3 is the final parting gift for fans, as Nas says goodbye (for now) to this producer-rapper pairing. The album represents a milestone for Nas reaching 50 during 50 years of Hip Hop, an audio journal of his accomplishments, his reflections on surviving life and lessons learned, reveling in Black excellence, and his dedication to the art form by bucking the trends. But aside from a few confessions and a song that acts as an acknowledgment section, Magic 3 mostly just sounds like another solid Nas and Hit-Boy collab, but without a doubt their least interesting material of the series. This album lacks new direction and feels like leftover tracks of Magic 2 packaged together as an add on. For a franchise coming to an end, the songs chosen for Magic 3 don’t satisfy enough to believe they’re hanging their jerseys up in the rafters for good.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a quality project, and the throughline of Nas reflecting on turning 50 does add a little bit of differentiation between the other entries. Hit-Boy still provides Nas with a compelling arsenal of cinematic samples, chopping up with beat breaks for him to flow seamlessly from one subject to the next. His signature knock on these beats (“Superhero Status,” “Blue Bentley,” “Never Die” featuring Lil Wayne, “Jodeci Member”) are much more front-facing, like he was saving them for this moment. Hit has clearly established possibly the most trust any producer ever has with Nas, leading to the Queensbridge rapper being comfortable with revealing untold thoughts and feelings that he may have once kept off record, evidenced by his confessions on “I Love This Feeling.” “They askin’ if I’m ever gon’ be over rap / But I left a few times, just never told you that,” he admits, one of the many new revelations he puts on wax. Hit-Boy pushes Nas to unpack the meaning behind turning 50, using inventive sample loops and beat switches like on “Japanese Soul Bar” to spill his heart out.

By this point, the worlds of Hit-Boy and Nas have merged to create their own universe. Their histories and backstories have been heavily documented in Hip Hop, throwing in references to “Represent” from Illmatic on “Fever” (named after the nightclub Nas performed at in 1993), unearthing Nas’ first interview with Video Music Box on “Japanese Soul Bar,” or using one of Hit-Boy’s producer tags with Nipsey Hussle’s voice on “Sitting With My Thoughts.” Nas is in competition with himself when it comes to his love for Rap, reinforcing his knack for street storytelling on the two-part “Based on the True Events,” that could be reimagined as a mini-movie.

Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist Play It Safe With ‘Voir Dire’

It’s hard to offer constructive criticism to an artist such as Nas, who explicitly addresses keyboard warriors and Rap critics on “TSK,” threatening violence to those who talk recklessly. But after this much material, it’s getting easier to poke holes in the Nas and Hit formula. Lines like calling himself “Chief Keef Cozart mixed with Mozart” sound like he’s rhyming just because he’s good at it, putting his interests first and stretching the imagination of what fans want to hear from him versus what they can tolerate. On “Pretty Young Girl,” he outlines his refined interests in a woman he is pursuing, but it comes off more “Certified Lover Nasir” than “Cherry Wine.” On “Speechless, Pt. 2,” Nas raps about artificial intelligence, which is pretty bad. “A.I. is only here to replicate and control / Imitatin’ the original then grabbed them a mold / Of the binary code, it’s your patterns they stole / This my tactical flow, the one they can’t redesign / You can redo the voice but you can never read my mind,” he raps. When you claim you’re both “old NY” and “new NY” like on the Lil Wayne-assisted “Never Die,” it offers a chance to update your lyrical content. However, Nas should know his audience enough that they want to hear him bring rap justice and rap the same way as he was on the block, not these half-baked bars about the bleak future of the music industry.

On the closer “1-800-Nas&Hit,” Nas compares the King’s Disease and Magic series to the boxed sets of the Star Wars and Fast & Furious franchises. The number is on an “infomercial” for fans to call them and leave a message, letting them know when they should return. It’s a celebratory song in nature, a victory lap to allow credits to roll. As the song closes out, he thanks everyone involved in the making of these albums, similar to J. Cole’s “Note to Self” and Kanye West’s “Last Call.”

Magic 3 is another chapter that doesn’t quite surpass the original, but it’s the swan song before his decision to retire. It’s not exactly the blockbuster conclusion Nas fans were looking for. Instead, it’s the cliffhanger ending that offers the chance for a reunion in the future. But for an artist who was written off several times in his career, and even himself wrote off the genre he helped popularize completely, Magic 3 puts the stamp on one of the most interesting late-career series in Hip Hop history, a feat that may never be duplicated.

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