Nas is one of the most celebrated lyricists in hip hop and, at one point, was New York’s prodigy child and lyrical poster boy. Known for his infamous battle with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella records, Nas is definitely a rapper that has cemented his place in rap history.
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. Good at illustrating the run-down inner city, the rapper could romanticise very sombre themes and find the beauty in what most would consider squalor.
Nas’ 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.
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 songs of all time.
The five best Nas songs of all time
5. ‘I Can’ – God’s Son, (2002)
Nas’ successful early noughties tracks were few and far between, however, ‘I Can’ was a song that performed extremely well for Nas’ in 2002. Unlike the Illmatic days, in 2002 Eminem was now the go-to for lyricism so Nas had to try a new approach.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Nas, explaining the song’s importance, proclaimed, “that was my biggest radio record I ever had.” With regard to the song’s somewhat childish feel, Nas recalled how he had just become a father around that time and admitted that it affected his music as he stated, “I owed her and other kids something, something real, something real that’s up their alley, to show that I cared, that I’m a human being, that I’m not just about giving you a tune about what happens in the hood and all that every day.”
4. ‘Nas Is Coming’ – It Was Written, (1996)
Produced by Compton legend Dr Dre, ‘Nas Is Coming’ has the signature Dre sound. With smooth electric piano chords and a slow progression, this track is soothing yet still has an edge to it.
The song was a brave endeavour by both, and the pairing of the East Coast rapper and the West Coast producer during the bloody saga of the East Coast West Coast beef brought criticism from both sides, with Dre never managing to get back into 2pac’s good graces before he died that later year.
3. ‘Ether’ – Stillmatic, (2001)
‘Ether’ by Nas is not only the most well-known diss track in hip hop but almost the most well-made. Aimed at Jay-Z, ‘Ether’ epitomises the perfect diss track. It is clear with the first three words being “F*ck Jay-Z”, so there is no ambiguity surrounding who the song is aimed at. It addresses Jay-Z’s come-up and dissects how he may have ridden the coattails of others to achieve his success.
It is also an underdog story. Nas was not as relevant as Jay-Z at the time, so most assumed he would never respond to Jay-Z’s diss track ‘The Takeover’. However, he did and was disrespectful but also comedic in reminding listeners that in Jay-Z’s first ever music video appearance, he wore a Hawaiian shirt, which ultimately undermined Jay-Z’s gangster image and was highly comical.
2. ‘The Message’ – It Was Written, (1996)
Produced by icon DJ Premier, the beat for ‘The Message’ ingeniously samples Sting’s 1993 track ‘Shape of My Heart’ for its main melody. The beat is simple and sparse but carries a lot of emotion. ‘The Message’ is often cited as one of the best Nas songs.
In an interview with Complex, Nas explained the track was about how people in the ghetto trying to sabotage those who had made it out, he recalled, “There was a moment where it wasn’t just about being a fly guy with money, it was, ‘I’m still in the streets, I still got one foot in the streets.’ We were all gunning for that position or gunning people off of us trying to take our position. That was my position on ‘The Message’ like, ‘Yo, back up, everybody.”
1. ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ – Illmatic, (1994)
Not just a New York classic but a hip hop classic, ‘N,Y. State Of Mind’ has that classic boom bap East Coast sound that brings with it a warm nostalgia. The beat itself samples two jazz tracks, ‘Mind Rain’ by Joe Chambers and ‘Flight Time’ by Donald Byrd and has been covered numerous times.
In a self-produced video commentary series talking about his most popular hits, the rapper declared, “The music just spoke to the people that needed to know what was in my head and what it was like in the minds of everybody in New York at that time—that’s what I thought. I thought the sound sounded like what was in everyone’s head at some point, or that sound represents a certain section of your mind. […] There was a lot going on in New York, especially in the ‘90s, same as today. That song—I think it’s timeless in a lot of ways.”
You can listen to the song and watch the commentary on the song below.