Nas – 10 of the best (2022)

1. MC Serch feat Nas, Red Hot Lover Lover Tone and Chubb Rock – Back to the Grill

He’d announced his presence with a verse on Main Source’s Live at the Barbecue on the 1991 album Breakin’ Atoms, but an even bigger break came for Nasir Jones when he hooked up with MC Serch. The former 3rd Bass rapper was making moves as a music mogul that would eventually see him installed as head of the Wild Pitch indie that had released Main Source’s debut; by 1992 he’d established a management company, Serchlight, and courted the Queensbridge teenager as a client. Part of the getting-to-know-each-other process was this B-side, a joyously carefree slice of irreverent late-golden-era rap which found all four MCs on fine, rambunctious, if occasionally very off-colour form. At that time, Jones was still going by the name Nasty Nas, and his verse – a follow-on from his Main Source turn – traded on the same cartoonish villain persona. If it was Snoop who has since gone public with his adoration of British TV comic Benny Hill, Nas put the concept into lyrical practice: “This is Nas, kid, you know how it runs,” he raps; “I’m wavin’ automatic guns at nuns / Stickin’ up the preachers in church – I’m a stone crook / Serial killer who works by the phone book.” Relationships were duly forged: not just with Serch, who started shopping Nas’s demos around New York, and went on to help mastermind his 1994 debut, but with Tone who, as half of the Trackmasters production duo, would work with Nas repeatedly throughout the decade. This may not be his finest verse, but he contributes fully to a great if oft-overlooked record, and as an example of the state of the art he was about to upend and transcend, it gives an instructive sense of context for what was to follow.

2. One Love

The rest of this list could be filled with the nine full-length tracks from Illmatic, and few would complain. Nas’s debut was two years in the making and it changed hip-hop industry thinking, ushering in the era of multiple producers working on a single LP. It is hailed as one of the genre’s touchstone releases – indeed, it’s sometimes cited as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, and the claim is difficult to dismiss. The album cast a shadow over the rapper’s subsequent career, with every new record immediately held up for comparison with his first, and inevitably found wanting. There’s a temptation when constructing a list like this to omit it entirely, on the basis that anyone interested enough to read about the artist would already know it, love it and consider it so essential that it can perhaps be taken for granted. But it would be perverse not to include at least one of its bejewelled moments.

This collaboration with Q-Tip is a standout even on an album as uniformly excellent as Illmatic. The beat, built from a thumb-piano riff sampled from a 1975 Heath Brothers LP, frames two verses constructed as letters from Nas to friends in prison, while the closing stanza relates a conversation between the rapper and a pre-teen drug-dealer, the elder man – still barely out of childhood himself – lamenting the hardening of the times and the steel that was forming in the hearts of the residents of New York’s crack-ravaged public-housing projects. The writing is never less than astonishing, from the disarming way he tells his incarcerated friend of birth, death and infidelity in the first verse (“When the cops came you should’ve slid to my crib / Fuck it, black – no time for lookin’ back: it’s done / Plus - congratulations! You know you got a son? / I heard he looks like ya – why don’t your lady write ya?”) to the atmospheric detail of that closing conversation over a shared joint with the kid back in Queensbridge (“Shorty’s laugh was cold-blooded as he spoke so foul / Only 12, tryin’ to tell me that he liked my style / Then I rose, wipin’ the blunt’s ash from my clothes / then froze, only to blow the herb’s smoke through my nose”). There’s nothing like it anywhere else in his discography, in hip-hop, or in music full stop.

3. Raekwon feat Ghostface Killah and Nas – Verbal Intercourse

Nas’s rise came in parallel with Biggie and Wu-Tang Clan, and a little ahead of Jay Z. Together they helped New York rap re-establish itself after a period of gangsta-funk-derived dominance for Los Angeles, and before the Dirty South entered the frame and proved hip-hop had more than two regional power centres. Yet the artists were never really part of a cohesive scene, with beefs between them more apparent than any sense of comradeship or regional unity. The exception was Nas’s collaboration with the Clan, and in 1995 he became the first MC from outside that group to appear on one of their records. The verse was something he’d written before – an unreleased track from abandoned sessions for an Illmatic follow-up, called Deja Vu, was its original setting – but the blend of metaphysical introspection, homespun philosophising and a sense of streetwise poetical leadership gave it a universality Raekwon and Ghostface built on. The song was released on Raekwon’s debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and caused an immediate stir. Raekwon remembers hearing it as Nas recorded it – to a daringly minimal backing Rza had crafted out of a slowed-down loop sampled from the Emotions – and knowing they’d hit gold. The Source would later list it among the five greatest verses in hip-hop history.

4. The Message

Two years after a debut that had instantly had him placed in the top rank of the all-time great rap lyricists, Nas’s second album caused some consternation. He’d tried to make a follow-up sooner, but unfinished tracks were leaked. He decided to change direction, and It Was Written’s break with the observational reportage style of the first record left some fans nonplussed. He would later argue that an Illmatic-style follow-up to the debut would have left him boxed into a creative corner. “I thank God I didn’t do that, man,” he told me in 2004. “It would have been cool if I had been able to do that album, then still been able to make It Was Written next. But I just think that I would have lost the drive to do it. If I would have just put out two albums with basically the same grungy sound, it would have been, ‘If this is who Nas is, then I’m finished, I’ve had enough, I’m not inspired.’”

The opening track, The Message, signalled the departure, its vignettes in a style in thrall to the mob movies Nas loved, his teenage bedroom experiments with scriptwriting put to the fore. The depth of the detail is oceanic, but is conveyed with precision and economy – from the evocation of a high-living existence through glimpses of casino visits and expensive car accessories (“The highlights of livin’ / Vegas-style, roll dice in linen / Antera spinnin’ on Millenniums”) to tales of turf wars fuelled by jealousy and crab-in-barrel battles for power and respect (“I peeped you frontin’ / I was in the Jeep, sunk in the seat, tinted with heat / Beats bumpin’ / Across the street you was wildin’ / Talkin’ ’bout how you ran the Island in 89 / Layin’ up / Playin’ the yard with crazy shine”), the rhythm driven by internal rhymes of vivid lucidity and technical complexity, all delivered with that heavy-lidded, laid-back intonation he’d mastered on the first LP. The performances built on his achievements while the writing makes a break for unexplored territory. Nas had successfully cemented a new style: this was as far from the narrator of Illmatic as that persona had been from Nasty Nas. Even more importantly, he unlocked a door other rappers were now free to follow him through – where experiences (whether first, second or third hand) weren’t always going to be necessary, where rappers were free to use their imaginations and create new worlds of words for their on-record narrators to inhabit. The Trackmasters came up with a superb musical undercarriage for the writing, too – a sample of Sting’s Shape of Your Heart is allowed to stretch out and breathe, its acoustic loop supplanted with strings to evoke Mediterranean sunsets and Mafia dons from the old country. Curiously, the version included on pre-release cassettes of the album uses a very slightly longer loop of the sample, the phrase allowed to end on a lower note; by the time It Was Written came out, this had been tweaked to make the last note of the loop the same as the first. The original retains a more satisfyingly melancholy air, and remains the best version to track down.

The first verse would come back to haunt Nas. He would later admit that the “fake thug” he compared to Gusto, the character played by Chris Rock in the NWA/gangsta-rap parody movie CB4, was Notorious BIG; but Tupac thought it was about him, and fired off an attack in the song Bomb First.

5. Nas Is Like

Albums three and four – I Am … The Autobiography, and Nastradamus – underwhelmed many fans at the time and remain the least well-regarded records of Nas’s career. Set next to the rest of his output that’s not unfair, but any notion that they’re not good records needs to be laid to rest. Both are patchy but there’s plenty of substance there: with a writer of Nas’s calibre, how could there not be? Nastradamus’s title track and Project Windows, a lament for the scenes witnessed from his flat in Queensbridge, would be standouts on most of his other albums, while I Am’s highlights are also capable of touching the sky. Reuniting with DJ Premier, who’d crafted three of Illmatic’s best tracks, Nas Is Like was a restatement of purpose. Musically, it provided fans with a decade-long mystery – it would be 2008 before Premier revealed that the swirling string sample had been lifted from a 10-inch album of theological treatises set to music released by the Lutheran church in 1966. Lyrically, Nas took time out to explain his drive and sense of self, again painting expansive word pictures with a masterful economy. He always wrote good openings, but few are better than “Freedom or jail, a clip’s inserted / A baby’s being born the same time a man is murdered / The beginning and end.” Throughout the song he writes in resolved, circular terms about actions and consequences and the cycle of life, while weaving in explanations of his personal philosophy and adding a gloss to his history, while explaining where he stands with a series of vivid and often jarring metaphors (“Nas is like earth, wind and fire / Rims and tyres, bulletproof glass – inside is the realest driver / Planets in orbit, line ’em up with the stars / Tarot cards / You can see the pharaoh Nas”).

6. Rewind

Nas was perceived to have a resurgence at the dawn of the new century, with him locked in a celebrated on-record feud with Jay Z. His battle track, Ether, is among the best of its kind, and its title has become a social-media meme used to refer to anyone coming off worse in a war of words (they are often said to have “got ethered”), but the highlight of the widely – if surprisingly – praised fifth album, Stillmatic, is this track. On It Was Written, the song I Gave You Power had examined crime from the perspective of a handgun; in Rewind, Nas tells the story of a murder in reverse, the song opening with a brief explanation before we hear the bullet flying out of the victim’s body and back into the gun barrel. At the end of verse two we hear the voicemail message alerting the assailant that the adversary has been located. Between, the tale proceeds backwards. It’s a gimmick, but as a piece of experimental writing – and an example of hip-hop at its most relentlessly inventive, free-spirited and rule-breaking best – it remains peerless.

7. Last Real Nigga Alive

The final word in the Jay Z battle came on the introspective God’s Son, an album that combined raw machismo with towering maturity and was made following the death of Nas’s mother. In two verses, Nas gives a glimpse behind the scenes into the relationships between himself, Raekwon and Ghostface, Biggie and Jay, with walk-on parts for artist-executive Sean “Puffy” Combs and manager-producer Steve Stoute. Stories that fans had upgraded from “rumour” status to “legend” are dusted down and new insights offered – theories are advanced to explain Jay’s motivation in going after Nas on record, while Nas writes with a surprising philosophical frankness about the relationship between Jay and Carmen Bryant, the estranged mother of his eldest child, Destiny. Although he turns a six-year-old Jay Z rhyme around to end the song with an aggressive jab, for the most part Nas is content to be the bigger and better man: in the process, he gives fans who’d followed the evolving saga the kind of glimpse behind the curtain that doesn’t usually come until everyone’s retired and is writing their memoirs. “Real” is the operative word here: often bandied about in hip-hop by rappers being anything but, on this song it means exactly what it says.

8. Thief’s Theme

The first single from God’s Son, Made You Look, had sampled the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache, which was so ubiquitous in the block parties that gave birth to the music that it’s been referred to as “hip-hop’s national anthem”. Nas returned to the IBB motherlode twice in the first decade of the new century, the title track of 2006’s knowingly contentious Hip Hop Is Dead following this track from the sprawling, overlong but frequently brilliant 2004 double album, Street’s Disciple. Thief’s Theme found Salaam Remi taking the Bongo Band’s reading of Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, slowing it down, turning the sustained Hammond organ chord into a siren worthy of late-80s Public Enemy, while the rattle and shake of the bongos and drum kit creates a musical bedrock dripping with malevolence, menace and danger. Over, around and inside it, Nas writes two verses of breathtaking, heartstopping vision – one minute sizing up threats in the shadows, the next invoking the ghosts of John Lennon and Peter Tosh. “Lightning / Hits the top of the church steeple when I’m writing / Semiautomatic, no hyphen / It’s frightening.” And he has a point: there is a creepiness and a sense of preordained, otherworldly dread to the song that has few equivalent moments in his canon. There are two verses, both set at night, the first in a summer “hot like 95 fahrenheit” while the second is in winter where he can hide his shotgun inside his sheepskin coat. But again it’s his eye for detail that transports, delights and shocks – the opening that takes place in a “tight spot where bodies rot / rats drink from water drops”, those “parts of the streets where the beast [police] don’t wanna bother”. He may well just have felt he “had to make a song speaking on my old life / for the thieves who come out at night,” but he’d never written anything quite so evocatively spinechilling before, and thus far, he hasn’t done since.

9. American Way feat Kelis

In a list that includes only one song from Illmatic and none from 2012’s Life Is Good or 2006’s patchy but frequently inspired Hip Hop Is Dead, giving space to two songs from Street’s Disciple might seem akin to heresy. But just as Thief’s Theme finds Nas at the peak of his crime-writing powers, so American Way showcases him at his strident political best – every bit the heir of Public Enemy as the child weaned on Rakim and Kool G Rap. The beat is simplicity itself – Q-Tip is back on the boards and dusts down George Clinton’s Atomic Dog, turning the bright and breezy late-period P-Funk anthem into a slouching beast ready to breathe fire over the hip-hop landscape. It’s the perfect environment for one of Nas’s most focused and angry lyrics, a seething deconstruction of America’s racial and social political elites and an indictment of so-called leaders. On the album it sits alongside These Are Our Heroes, an excoriation of mainstream black cultural and media figures which pulls absolutely no punches: on this track, it’s John Kerry, both George Bushes and W’s then national security advisor (“Condoleezza Rice – I don’t really get this chick / Tell her if she ever really cared about poor schools / About poor children, then she gotta prove / That she ain’t just another coon Uncle Tom fool”) who get skewered. Special venom is saved for rappers who think that cosying up to either, as Chuck D once put it, “the jackass or the elephant” is a positive move – the first half of the song is basically one big middle finger to entertainers and public figures who promote political engagement as a pose, without getting properly involved. Verse two relates a conversation in a Manhattan steam room, where Nas is called upon to explain misogyny in hip-hop culture (“Now I’m the spokesperson for black men – this always happens”) and ends up arguing that the biggest pimps are rich white men (he names Donald Trump and, by referencing Monica Lewinsky, singles out Bill Clinton) before telling the “cowards” he’s talking to that he’s about to take his fiance shopping. And she’s there, too, singing the hook – Kelis, whom he married in 2005 (the couple divorced in 2010).

Nas – 10 of the best (1)

10. Hero feat Keri Hilson

What song sums Nas up? It’s Hero, a controversial and bullishly self-referential single from 2008’s untitled album, that gets the nod. The beat, by Pollow da Don, had been offered to other rappers first, but when Nas grabbed it he took its glitter and fizz and turned it into explosive polemic, capped with celebratory fireworks. The moment was pivotal: having announced that his album was to be called Nigger, and intending to feature as its main sleeve art a graphic showing the rapper’s back with his N logo incised on him as it from welts and scars left by a whip, Nas ran in to a blazing row. Mainstream retailers weren’t going to stock it; a Brooklyn politician urged New York’s comptroller to disinvest state pension funds from Universal if the album came out under that title. Nas was told he had to call it something else. Unrepentant, he wrote this song, with a chorus that has him – ostensibly a little reluctantly – taking up the mantle of hero because he has what he perceives his audience needs; and explains how his decision to take the title off the album brought him victory over his enemies. In the final verse he askes pointed questions about the entertainment industry in the 21st century and the shape of the society we’ve forged for ourselves. He starts in on “this universal apartheid”, the phrase clearly a reference to Def Jam’s corporate owner, and talks of being “in musical prison, in jail for the flow” before questioning whether the same rules would apply to high-profile white artists, all of them at different times Nas’s labelmates: “Try tellin’ Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel they can’t sing what’s in their soul.” The final lines ring with vindication, but carry a warning: “So untitled it is: I never changed nothin’ / But people, remember this / If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids / With new ideas bein’ told what they can and can’t spit.” The sign-off – “no matter what the CD’s called, I’m unbeatable” – could stand as his epitaph when one of the greatest rappers of all time finally hangs up the mic.

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