Nas Is Coming to Liverpool, so we thought a Top 10 would be a fitting way to pay homage to a true hip-hop legend, Getintothis’ Miles Etchells counts us down.
The rapper from Queensbridge, New York played a key part in the city reclaiming its place as the capital of hip-hop, bursting onto the scene in 1991 with a hot verse on Main Source’s Live at the BBQ before releasing the canonical Illmatic in 1994, at 20 years old.
Alongside A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie, Nas (Nasir Jones) provided the rap game with an alternative to the West-Coast G-Funk of the early 90s, and paved the way for Eminem, Jay-Z and others to complete hip-hop’s move into the dominant genre of this century.
Nas’ complex, conversational rap-style gleams, he describes minutely detailed scenes with multi-syllabic rhyme schemes. His mixing-up flows and intonation with deep bars and new slang was at the time innovation – in his own words, ‘mind activation’. Make no doubt he is hailed as one of the greatest ever, and his debut blew people away.
As a rapper Jones has remained inventive throughout his career, moving immediately from Illmatic’s low-fi loops and beats to Trackmasters’ cleaner production on 1996’s It Was Written in order to keep his sound fresh. Constantly original, Nas has rapped stories backwards (Rewind), told tales from the perspective of a gun (I Gave You Power), an unborn child (Fetus) and a woman (Sekou Story), and during his beef with Jay-Z wrote one of the definitive diss tracks.
He caused controversy by trying to name his 2008 album Nigger, before having to leave it Untitled. More recently he collaborated to make some festival bangers with Damian Marley on 2010’s Distant Relatives and in 2012 put out his most recent album, the excellent Life Is Good.
While it would be all too easy to just name Illmatic tracks 1-10 and be done with it, this list will aim to recognise not only one of the greatest rap albums of all time but also just a few of the classics from the rest of Nas’ back catalogue. This has not proven an easy task given his 10 solo albums, 2 collaboration albums, 4 mixtapes and countless features.
It ain’t hard to tell that there will be some belters left from this list, but that should be seen as a measure of the rapper’s greatness.
10. NY State of Mind – Illmatic 1994
The first proper track on Illmatic is the perfect place to start, as it introduced the world to what Nas is all about. Perfectly complimented by DJ Premier’s dark moody beats and a muffled bassline, NY State of Mind is brought to you ‘Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap’, and the song is instantly hypnotic.
Through it, Nas tells listeners the first of countless stories about the dark streets of New York, this one from the perspective of a hustler at night over two weighty verses. Alongside conjuring scenes of shootouts in lobbies witnessed by kids and the desperation of the life between crack and the police in the projects, Nas also lets us know that he is only just getting started: ‘I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane / Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain / And be prosperous, though we live dangerous / Cops could just arrest me, blaming us, we’re held like hostages’
In the city that never sleeps, Nas avoids it ‘Cause sleep is the cousin of death’ – morbidly informing us ‘Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind’
9. The Message – It Was Written 1996
When producers Trackmasters used a sample from Sting’s Shape of my Heart it heralded a different sound for Nas. As a single from It Was Written, The Message marked a controversial departure from the rougher-sounding Illmatic, especially when Latin-style guitars in hip-hop were a rarer experimentation. However, this song is a stand out on the album, and seems to be a sequel or a retelling of the story told in NY State of Mind.
Compared to the original, The Message juxtaposes the violence of the ghetto with the successful gangster lifestyle, depicting scenes of ‘Twenty G bets’ and evoking Scarface and Goodfellas, before bringing it back to a shootout on the corner. By evolving his sound and story Nas’ message reflects not only his real-life success but also the ambitions for a more glamorous life of all his contemporaries.
His smooth flow on top of that sultry loop creates a song that could have been a soundtrack to any of the classic gangster movies made that decade, but the chorus’ sampling of NY State of Mind and Halftime makes this song feel more like a wistful daydream on a Queens corner on a hot summers day.
8. Rewind – Stillmatic 2001
Another example of Nas’ innovative story telling, in this track he takes a classic hip-hop tale of sex, weed and murder but literally flips it around. The song starts with a bullet going back into a gun, and ends ‘I vomited vodka back in my glass with juice and ice / The clock went back from three, to two, to one / And that’s about the time the story begun’.
All the way through Nas’ lyrics are at their graphic best, and his flow goes brightly with Large Professor’s quick tempo claps and deep bassline. A brilliant and inventive song that earns its place on this list as it epitomises the creativity of Jones’ rapping.
7. Cherry Wine Ft. Amy Winehouse – Life is Good 2012
Using vocals recorded by Amy Winehouse intended for a collaboration between the two, Nas and producer Salaam Remi made a mournful soul song in homage to the late singer. Big fans of each other’s work – Me and Mr. Jones was written about Winehouse trying to get to a Nas concert, and they had collaborated previously on the gorgeous Like Smoke – Cherry Wine is a fitting tribute that highlights the best of both artists.
The soulful chorus is vintage Winehouse, and Nas’ verses acknowledge her talent, the friendship they had and wonders sadly where she is. This is a touching song in which Jones shows his sentimentality – another quality that stands him out from other rappers.
6. Ether – Stillmatic 2001
Fortunately Nas’ beef with Jay-Z in the 90s did not explode into violence like other famous examples, instead producing some of the best diss tracks to ever come out of the rap game. With The Takeover Jay landed a heavy blow to start with, prompting some to think this confirmed his place as the true king of NY, but Nas’ response Ether followed by his album Stillmatic in 2001 showed that the Queensbridge MC still had so much to give.
Ether is a visceral dismemberment of Jay-Z featuring a fatherly, condescending tone of disappointment and maturity that almost all acknowledge won an epic contest. The ending bars to the brutal third verse were impossible to come back from – ‘How much of Biggie’s rhymes is goin’ come out your fat lips? / Wanted to be on every last one of my classics / You pop shit, apologize, nigga, just ask Kiss’ – and from this point on getting handled in an argument has been also known as getting ‘ethered.’
5. Bridging the Gap Ft. Olu Dara – Streets Disciple 2004
On this Muddy Waters sampling song Nas worked with regular producer Salaam Remi to create a badass blues-with-beats track. Jones collaborated with his father Olu Dara on a tune that celebrates his musical upbringing, and the evolution of black music.
It’s a belter that gives insight into the relationship with his father that undoubtedly helped foster Nas’ prodigious talent – ‘Did it like Miles and Dizzy, now we gettin’ busy / Bridging The Gap from the blues, to jazz, to rap / The history of music on this track.’ Their rapport is strong with Nas taking the verses and Olu Dara the chorus, alongside some call and response. Interestingly it is not the only time they have worked together, with Dara playing the cornet on Life’s a Bitch from Illmatic, and Dance from 2002’s God’s Son.
4. Nas Is Like – I am… 1999
As the name suggests this is a classic braggadocio tune, but as it’s written by Nas it’s far from being textbook. Opening bars ‘Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby’s being born / Same time my man is murdered, the beginning and end’ tell you everything you already knew about the Queensbridge rapper, and mark him out as almost peerless without him actually having to big himself up.
The start of the second verse is equally impressive – ‘ “Nas is like..” Earth Wind & Fire, rims and tires / Bulletproof glass, inside is the realest driver / Planets in orbit, line em up with the stars / Tarot cards, you can see the pharaoh Nas’ – as it contrasts the urban with the mystical whilst emphasising his musical prowess. DJ Premier’s production is worthy of the disco reference as his big rhythmic beats bring out the B-Boy in all of us…
3.Life’s a Bitch Ft. AZ – Illmatic 1994
Almost overlooked by this list due to AZ’s performance being nearly thunder-stealingly good – he provides not only the immortal chorus, but is also the only rapper but Nas to get a verse on the whole album, and it’s fucking dope: ‘Visualizing the realism of life and actuality / Fuck who’s “the baddest”; a person’s status depends on salary / And my mentality is money-orientated / I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it’ – the opening bars are jaw-dropping, and fit perfectly with the vibe of the whole album.
Nas’ verse is similarly strong, containing bars like ‘Got rhymes 365 days annual plus some / Load up the mic and bust one, cuss while I puffs from / My skull cause it’s pain in my brain, vein, money maintain / Don’t go against the grain, simple and plain’ – awesome flow over L.E.S.’ production, and featuring a gorgeous cornet outro from Jones’ father.
2. The World Is Yours – Illmatic 1994
Another belter from his debut, The World Is Yours is classic Nas in that it paints a distinctly negative picture but tinges it with hope, or at least the acceptance of reality and the acknowledgement that people anywhere can always thrive in their own relative way. ‘Dwelling in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled / Or caught by the devil’s lasso, shit is a hassle / There’s no days for broke days we sell it: smoke pays’ – brilliant bars bettered still by the evocative ‘I’m out for dead presidents to represent me’. The man in the White House means nothing to the residents of Queensbridge, but the faces on the dollar bills are what counts.
Legendary old-school producer Pete Rock provided the backdrop for Jones to do his thing and paint a thousand scenes in a couple of lines. The hook tells everyone the world is theirs, before Nas reminds us ‘Its mine, its mine, its mine’, and with songs as good as this its easy to see why.
1. One Love Ft. Q-Tip – Illmatic 1994
Possibly his greatest work, this song epitomises the skill and inventiveness of Nas’ writing, as even at the age of 20 he was able to write 2 verses that serve as letters to friends in prison, and a 3rd in which he takes on the role of an elder imparting advice onto a young man over a shared blunt.
His storycraft fits superbly over typically excellent, hazy and trancelike loop, beat and hook from Q-Tip – ‘What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid / When the cops came you should’ve slid to my crib / Fuck it black, no time for looking back it’s done / Plus congratulations you know you got a son / I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?’
In just the first 5 lines he begins telling a story all too commonplace in areas where crime is the best option for survival. The short-sightedness of the judicial system that leaves more sons fatherless is exposed throughout, but the message is delivered in a chilled out, casual way that emphasises how this is an everyday issue in the hood.
Instead of glamourising violence like so much gangster-rap of the time, this track takes a unique approach to try and sway listeners from falling foul of the law, showing Nas’ moral and creative maturity.