Hit-Boy has brought his ear for samples and synths to collaborations with several artists in the past, but in Nas, he’s found a kindred spirit interested in the interplay of old and new. With every new release, Nas and Hit move slightly further away from the stately bland boom-bap of the first King’s Disease in 2020, and Magic 2 features some of their most adventurous moments to date. “Abracadabra” and “Black Magic” embrace rhythms from Atlanta and Memphis, respectively, that give Nas space to explore new patterns and pockets. He said he’s inspired by the youth, and it shows. He rattles off triple-time couplets over pianos and 808s and catches a stutter-stop flow over sampled scratches and tinny horns and organ. On “Earvin Magic Johnson,” he bounces lyrics between a fanfare and speaker-shredding drums like a basketball between legs. Phonetically, the words pop and bounce around the production in a pleasing way, and he sounds more awake and engaged than he has in a while.

But more often than not, the spell comes undone when you home in on exactly what Nas is saying. When he spits lines with catchphrases and slogans like “Durag energy/I’m on a wave, you niggas cap” or ends a handful of others with “for real” on “Abracadabra,” it feels forced, like he’s cycling through Urban Dictionary tabs open on a laptop in the booth. Try-hard wordplay causes him to put his foot in his mouth multiple times and dull the effects of his words—“My scrotum is golden” sounds cringey coming out of his mouth, though it’s not clear who could make “My scrotum is golden” sound cool, either.

Nas and Hit clearly have a lot of fun putting these projects together—otherwise, why make five of them in three years?—but the punchlines and flexes are hit-or-miss, and it doesn’t help that Hit’s beats lose all of their luster once they default back into his dead-eyed retro-traditionalism. Ironically, Nas’ jokes and boasts land better when mixed in with his trademark eye for storytelling. Take the second verse of “What This All Really Means,” which converts his frustration about his double album I Am…The Autobiography leaking into fuel to keep making music on his own terms well into old age; or how, on “Earvin Magic Johnson,” he looks back on memories of fights at McDonald’s in Manhattan and playing stages in Australia with the same reverent eyes. He’s getting better at balancing aged reflections without trying too hard for the kids.

It’s difficult to get too worked up about these Nas and Hit-Boy projects because, at their core, it’s miraculous they even exist at all. Nas is flying high on a career third wind (or fourth, depending on who you ask) and having a ball just kicking rhymes and experimenting with flows and styles with a producer who’s on the same wavelength as him. But at the same time, Magic 2, just like the four projects that came before it, isn’t grand, sharp, or thoughtful enough to warrant the several adoring re-evaluations of Nas’ GOAT status it’s spawned. It’s the textbook definition of a low-stakes mid-career rap album, a place for one of the genre’s icons to show he’s still in decent fighting shape.