Nasir Jones: Rap's All-Time Best
"I never brag how real I keep it cause it's the best secret.”
Nas - the best rapper of the 90s - is the best rapper of all time. That he doesn't have the miracle melody flow of Biggie or the revolutionary energy of Tupac doesn't matter. Nas is a writer, an observer. A sharp eye for details that speak volumes, the ability to dig deeply into personal pain and arrive at some real insight. The most influence - Tupac took a beat (“Street Dreams”) and a concept (“I Gave You Power”), Jay-Z found his voice through Illmatic's vivid street stories, every faux gangster rapper owes a debt to It Was Written. His vision opened a thousand doors. A rapper could be a poet, a cultural critic, a gangster, a drug dealer, a hedonist, a post-Panther militant, or just an old school party MC. All at once? Only Nas.
1994's Illmatic has been praised enough. It's a classic, an undeniable masterpiece. Buy it, learn it, love it. The album gave birth to two genres of hip hop - underground and NY commercial. No one in the underground 90s renaissance - no matter how rippity-rappity or lyrical-spiritual - was better than Nas. His content is dense, with tightly constructed lyrics of street crimes and philosophies that require close repeated listens to unpack. Every line means something - very rarely does Nas resort to rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake.And even as he describes his housing projects, his worldview is global. He always positions his local crime stories as part of a human rights struggle, paints his personal vision with universal context.
Illmatic brought an arty elegance to hip hop in spite of its gun and blunts talk. It's like Coppala's The Godfather in more ways than one. The 70s were a peak for American cinema, from early masterpieces on through later blockbusters that set a blueprint today's Hollywood nonsense. So with 90s hip hop, with early classics giving way to crossover stars (Jay-Z, DMX) who created an industry standard for the aspiring rappers.
It Was Written (1996)
The second album, 1996's It Was Written, attempts to expand the narrative scope with Nas starring as Escobar the coke kingpin. It works because the flow is as complex as ever, his peak as a lyricist. It's not even the showpieces like the personification of a gun on “I Gave You Power” but just the stray lines of poetry fired off effortlessly: “Currency made us trust in the messiah/I'm spending it to get higher/Earth Wind & Fire singing reasons why I'm/Up early trustworthy as a nine that busts early/Sunshine on my grill I spill Remy on imaginary graves/Put my hat on my waves/Latter day saints say religious praise.” Again - this is dense, evocative poetry with references from any and everywhere. It Was Written is packed with this sort of stuff, even if it lacks the singular focus of Illmatic as an overall listen. There arre a couple of missteps: “Black Girl Lost” sounds like a Tupac but doesn't work for Nas, and the collaboration with Dr Dre “Nas Is Coming” is just plain awful - a song that probably sounded cool on studio speakers while the boys were blunted but isn't good for much else.
Nas would later acknowledge his Escobar character from this period as a mistake, or rather a style that had to be outgrown. This is evident on The Firm side-project, a super-group of sorts that took drug dealing fantasies to absurd extremes. The style is there, as AZ and Foxy Brown reach for Nas's level of dense poetry, but the content is not - it's a facade, like a slick crime movie with no plot, character, or overall message. We might also note that the mediocre Nature replaced original member Cormega, a far better rapper with a more distinctive flow who would have given the project more depth. But it hardly matters - The Firm is a forgettable period in Nas's career.
His next project was his most ambitious and unfocused. Intended as a double to compete with Pac, Biggie and the Wu, the album sessions were bootlegged, re-rerecorded, and ultimately scrapped. Or at least that was the official excuse. My theory is just that Nas overreached. At some point any great artist will consciously attempt a masterpiece, some massive sprawling work that must explain the whole world. Add in some good smoke, critical adulation, and unlimited studio time and this is what you get. The artistic hubris is evidenced the first track “Fetus,” which is rapped from the womb. Which was supposed to introduce two-CDs of the journey of life, yadda yadda yadda. The project itself was a failure because Nas is not a 'big album concept' artist - every try at that sort of thing results in a lower tier album. Furthermore Nas was at a crossroads in the late 90s, which were giving over to the jiggy world in which DMX made anthems for football games and Diddy danced with Godzilla. Fuck that - this is real life, this is war, this is Nas. It's not a movie.
I Am... (1999)
Nonetheless, some of the material from this period is brilliant. It's just a process of weeding out, as Black Flag would say. The first album released from the sessions, I Am..., is a schizophrenic and dispiriting listen. This is best evidenced by back to back tracks with choruses that go from “I'll wet (kill) who you want wetted” to “We will survive.” Of course we understand that gangsta talk is part of any rapper's milieu, so we're not here to hold Nas accountable for that but rather to point out that it exposed a lack of artistic focus. No longer is Nas a moral leader, but a follower of trends, grasping at styles which serve to weaken his message. (This would soon be pinpointed by Jay-Z in their beef - “Which is it?”) That's not to say that I Am... lacks for strong material, with the two DJ Premier collabs and a song like “Small World” with its chatty name dropping gangster talk that gave 50 Cent an early style to run with. It's just that the bad stuff is so bad to make the whole thing impossible as a complete listen. The followup Nastradamus, with more tracks culled from the same sessions, is widely regarded as Nas's worst but I don't mind it as much. At least it's more consistent than I Am..., lacking the highs but also the embarassing depths.
The Lost Tapes (1999)
The best of this era's material was released on 2002's The Lost Tapes, which I'd say is the most essential Nas album in the catalog. Better than Illmatic? Yes. While the debut was the voice of a teen with a vision for the world, The Lost Tapes is a man who's actually lived out there and struggled. A different kind of struggle - The Lost Tapes is the sound of a spiritual war. He achieved his dreams, made the best rap album of all time, and what has changed? “Doo Rags” asks those questions as always with larger perspective: “Rikers Island buses still packed, what's the word?” Nas was never so reflective and insightful as these tunes. I love The Lost Tapes - over the years this album has spoken to my problems and concerns and dreams more than any other I've ever heard. It's just that deep. Illmatic made Nas a legend, but The Lost Tapes is best evidence for what makes him so special.
But back in 1999 - before The Lost Tapes material was released - Nas the rap star was lost. He released a compilation of local artists that included the single worst Nas song ever “Oochie Wally.” A simmering battle of subliminal disses with Jay-Z then burst open at the worst possible time. Jay-Z hit his commercial peak with The Blueprint, an album that in its own way has been nearly as influential as Illmatic, if not quite as artistically potent - think of it as maybe Casino to The Godfather. “Takeover” - built on sample of The Doors' “Five To One” - was an ambitious and fatally effective diss, surgically dismantling Nas and Mobb Deep, leaving only “half a bar” for the rest of the rap world. Let's note - Jay-Z is a smart rapper, who at his best elevates the form from just rhymes to intelligent conversation. And Jay pulled back the curtain on “Takeover,” with its references to publishing royalties and Prodigy's ballerina past. It was personal, precise, and hinted at even worse to follow.
So Nas's next album Stillmatic was defensive but inspired. Like his epic response diss “Ether,” the album comes an assumed position of technical and spiritual superiority - “I'll prove you lost already.” It's still full of social commentary - “One Mic,” “What Goes Around,” and “My Country” are more mature but still unapologetic, vigilant as fuck. He reunites with his classic Illmatic producers on “2nd Childhood” and “You're Da Man” - the former a denunciation of generational immaturity and the second being one of the most stoner friendly hip hop songs ever made. (Seriously, please stop with the Snoop Dogg or Wiz Khalifa or whatever nonsense - get a few blunts to the head and listen to Nas, starting with “You're Da Man.”) But “Ether” is still the centerpiece - this was the diss that didn't just respond, but dismantled Jay-Z's soul. It's a great moment for hip hop: their beef was fought and settled through music, a testament to their talents and a lesson for others.
God's Son (2002)
The death of Nas's mother hangs over God's Son, along with his renewed status as King Of New York. As such, it's kind of a weird vibe - half somber reflection, half victory lap. But it's one of my favorite Nas albums. Producer Salaam Remi lends the project a new school boom bap flavor that fits perfectly, along with tracks from Alchemist and a collab with Tupac's ghost (“Thugz Mansion”). God's Son marks the end of his classic era, as his work shifted to an often unsuccessful mix of maturity and indulgence.
Nowhere is this most apparent than on 2004's double album Street's Disciple, which vies with I Am... as Nas's worst. It's a mess - with street stories and groupie memories, all which are filtered through his new marriage to R&B singer Kelis. Nothing works - not a tribute track to Rakim, not the forced social commentary, definitely not “The Makings Of A Perfect Bitch.” Some good songs got left off the album proper (“Good Morning,” and “Serious” with AZ, not to mention the superior original “Disciple” with an uncleared Billy Joel sample). This is a problem for Nas - he's known at times for poor beat selection (which is why blend projects are often superior) and album construction (which is why Lost Tapes Vols 2-5 would be better than most modern Nas albums). The only redeemable point for the album is “Thief's Theme” - “Martyr, hood haunted like the Dakota/Where John Lennon was shot up/He sang for peace, begged for freedom.”
His next two projects centered around big concepts that were let down with execution. Hip Hop Is Dead is an evocative title and not much more; it's middling Nas, decent enough but not equal to his high standard. untitled was originally envisioned as a political project with a more incendiary title, but fans expecting a message of revolutionary focus would be disappointed. untitled seems to reflect Nas's own disengagement with his art. It's understandable - an artist reaches an age and level of success whereupon that burning fire of inspiration is no longer necessary. He's a father, a touring musician, a businessman. So 2008's untitled is far different from a version we may have gotten in 1996 and for that we can credit him for at least being true to himself. But a track like “Sly Fox” is emblematic - an attack on or even an acknowledgment of Fox News seems so far beneath Nas, an easy target that should be fodder for the common people not a god MC.
2012's Life Is Good is a reinvention, a blueprint for classy adult hip hop. And Nas makes it work better than that phrase might suggest. That is - it's honest, not a gimmick. “Daughters” directly addresses the controversy with his daughter's social media, “Bye Baby” his failed marriage. It's not a perfect album, as some of it feels stylistically forced, autopilot Nas. But again we can't expect the same level of emotional commitment as his peak work, so Life Is Good is as excellent model for hip hop heroes aging gracefully.
I don't care much for 2010's Distant Relatives, a collaboration with Damian Marley but that's just my personal distaste for the reggae fusion thing. But a complete assessment of Nas's work has to include his stray tracks left off the albums, which float around on bootlegs or J-Love's Nas's Finest series. “Esco Let's Go,” “Rise And Fall,” “Where Y'all At,” “The Foulness,” “Don't Body Yaself” (50 Cent diss) - the list goes on. Just better your life and go listen to some Nas. One love.