Nas is one of the most celebrated lyricists in hip hop and, at one point, ruled New York. Known for his infamous battle with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella records, Nas is definitely a rapper that will go down in history. However, unlike the big man Hov, Nas’ career never took off the way it was supposed to in the early noughties. With so many amazing rappers coming onto the scene in at the turn of the millennium, Nas really seemed to stall and is still predominantly looked at as a 90s rapper. However, that is not to say that he didn’t release some quality records after the 1990s.
Born and raised in the Queensbridge area of New York, Nas was one of the biggest names in underground hip hop during the early 90s, with his debut album Illmatic to this day still classed as a classic and a must-listen for any fan of hip hop. He was a rapper, songwriter and most importantly, a storyteller that other artists envied over. The rapper’s ability to immerse listeners in a story was second to none, and his way with words was awe-inspiring. His music remains some of the most memorable creations in all of hip-hop, and his contribution to the culture can never be negated.
What’s fascinating about Nas is his ability to romanticise what can often be very sombre themes and find the beauty in what most would consider squalor. Listening to a Nas album is an unparalleled experience. Beyond the braggadocious attitudes and materialism that is so often associated with the hip hop genre, you have a soul, and Nas’ albums were straight from the soul. They can evoke a range of emotions, and that’s crucial in hip hop, a quality album cannot be centred around just pure anger.
With such a varied skillset, Nas has some of the greatest songs in hip hop culture, With a song for every mood and a plethora of quality albums, below, we’ve picked out Nas’ top five albums.
Top five Nas albums of all time:
5. Life Is Good (2012)
A solid body of work, Life Is Good is the rapper’s eleventh studio album. The project was released to a lot of critical acclaim and debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. The album is mature and explores a lot of the rapper’s personal issues, from his divorce to his ever-changing relationship with his daughter Destiny.
With songs like ‘Daughters’ really showing the rapper’s vulnerability, the project showed a different side to the rapper, different to the hard, rough-cut Queensbridge Nas from the ’90s. The rapper’s collaboration with the late Amy Winehouse is also on this album, featuring smooth jazz instrumentation. If you’re looking for the ‘Ether’ Stillmatic Nas on this album, you won’t find him. Nonetheless, the record deserves a spot in the rapper’s top five.
4. The Lost Tapes (2002)
The lost tapes is a compilation album but it made quite the impact as it showcased what were, at the time, previously unreleased tracks that had been discarded during the rapper’s recording of I Am… and Stillmatic.
The Lost Tapes album was essentially a body of work comprised of album cuts that got lost. Listening to the tracks, you can still hear the emotion and grit of the 90s, and you’re transported. The album peaked at number 10 on the Billboard 200, but it has more cultural significance than a commercial one because fans got to hear these exclusive songs that had remained behind the scenes for years.
3. Stillmatic (2001)
One of Nas’ best. With the album containing the legendary ‘Ether’ track, Stillmatic is a heavy-duty hip hop album. There’s no doubt Nas’ made a classic with this project, and just a little over twenty years later, the album has aged like a fine wine.
This was Nas’ comeback record that (after a disappointing album in 1999) would put him back on top of the New York rap game, as many felt that Nas had been knocked off the top by Jay-Z and….well, it’s fair to say it definitely made Jay-Z wake up to Nas with the ‘Ether’ track absolutely obliterating Jay-Z’s track ‘Takeover’. Stillmatic showed to fans that Nas was coming into the new millennium strong and with a bang.
2. It Was Written (1996)
Debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200, It Was Written is Nas’ best-selling album to date and is certified triple-platinum. With a more polished sound that was less ‘raw’ so to speak, It Was Written had far more mainstream appeal but at the same time slightly alienated some of Nas’ hardcore fans who preferred the older Illmatic Nas, that was edgier and a better representation of the New York streets.
However, alongside projects such as Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z’s debut album, Nas’ third album was slightly more braggadocious in embracing what has been dubbed as “mafioso-rap”, talking more from the perspective of a rich mobster rather than from a poor person. But regardless of what the hardcore fans thought, it did bring Nas to a wider audience, so with classics such as ‘I Gave You Power’, ‘The Message’ and ‘Affirmative Action’, as well as production from DJ Premier and Dr Dre, this album has to land at number two.
1. Illmatic (1994)
The holy grail of New York and undoubtedly one of the best debut albums in hip-hop ever, Illmatic captivated listeners with its stories of struggle, constant commotion, heartache and misery. Illmatic could immerse non-New York residents and make them feel like they lived there for years, with its detail. Illmatic could and did literally transport listeners globally to Queensbridge with the picture it painted.
Tracks like ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ have become classics. You don’t hear Illmatic tracks in the clubs, they were not made for drunken ears, they were made for the heart and soul. With producers such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip all helping capture the sound of inner city life on the streets of Queens, Illmatic is an unforgettable listen and has cemented its place in the hip hop history books and at number one on this list.