This article was originally published in 2014, but we’re dusting it off for Nas’ birthday on September 14th.
Once upon a time, Nasir Jones was just a young kid stealing the show on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” self-aware enough to foresee that he’d be a force to be reckoned with in rap’s packed New York scene. Long before he was a household name, he was comparing himself to Spielberg and going to hell for snuffing Jesus, both proof of the grandiose nature of his vision. Over two decades later, he remains one of the preeminent voices setting the gold standard for the genre.
Nas, a product of Queens, has often been hailed as the second coming of the God MC himself, Rakim, but it’s safe to say, given the lifespan of his career and his subsequent impact on the culture, that he tapped into something completely singular and objective. Illmatic, which we just named No. 59 on our greatest albums of all time list, stands alone as a timeless exhibition of his skill and established him as a truly exceptional lyrical technician without parallel. Nas was never the second coming of Rakim; he was simply the first coming of a new rap king, the heir apparent.
From Life Is Good to wildly controversial albums like Untitled and Hip Hop Is Dead to God’s Son and The Lost Tapes to the career-resurrecting Stillmatic all the way through ’90s releases like I Am…, It Was Written, and the legendary Illmatic, Nas has amassed an impressive number of singles and classic cuts, enough to retire as rap royalty.
Narrowing down the greatest songs in his extensive discography is a task sure to leave some dissatisfied, but it’s nearly impossible to discuss Nas as a cultural staple without these precious gems on our list. Here are our 10 favorite songs from Nas’ illustrious career; scroll to the end for a playlist of every track.
— Sheldon Pearce
10. “Queens Get the Money”
Nasir Jones at his most political is a brutally analytical social critic, who can pack an entire cable news segment into a verse or eviscerate a pundit with a couplet (I’m looking at you, O’Reilly). Untitled, though ridiculously uneven, showed flashes of brilliance with its grand climax coming in the opening moments. “Queens Get the Money,” the lone, solo production credit on enigmatic rap guru Jay Electronica’s resume, is tantamount to Nas’ “PSA.”
Though Jay’s self-gratifying interlude carries a bit more clout, and Nas’ intro grapples more with bouts of social commentary, the two songs operate in the same headspace — both cautiously self-aware. Nas is dexterous enough to throw barbs at 50 Cent and sandwich them in between planting conspiracy theories and wishing the Arsenio Hall Show back into existence. He has always had a knack for opening strong (See: “The Message,” “Get Down”), but “Queens Get the Money” is a prototypical rap intro. — S.P.
09. “If I Ruled the World”
It Was Written (1996)
The presence of Trackmasters on It Was Written may have initially alienated NY rap purists, but time has proved that mindset to be both narrow and illogical. The polished production was a departure from Illmatic‘s grittiness, but Nas’ lyrics are as on-point as ever. “If I Ruled the World,” the album’s Lauryn Hill-assisted single, finds Nas following the tradition of Kurtis Blow as well as artists like Ice Cube and 2Pac who dreamed of a better life from the opposite coast.
Like those that came before it, the song is a portrait of an ideal world, as told from a less than ideal one. Nas dreams of Benz stretches and jet skis as much as he wishes for a better type of place to raise kids in. An ideal world would’ve forgiven Nas for the slight commercial turn taken on It Was Written, but time has shown that sometimes it takes a little distance for perception to shift. “If I Ruled the World” remains a defining statement from a classic body of work. — Will Hagle
08. “Nas Is Like”
I Am… (1999)
As DJ Premier scratches on “Nas Is Like,” he pieces together a brief resume (“My poetry’s deep, I never fell…”) and bio (“Half man, half amazing”) for his musical progeny out of scraps of the Illmatic closer, “It Aint Hard to Tell,” and the genius of both men is illustrated fantastically. Nas and DJ Premier stand as physical representations of the pinnacle of their respective crafts: Premier as an incredibly proficient re-inventor of sound and Nas as an adroit manipulator of the spoken word, and a collaboration between the two on what is essentially a definitive track typifies the power of rap synergy. Separately, the two represent their specific branches of hip-hop as a cultural movement. Together, they are a demonstration of everything good hip-hop can be. — S.P.
07. “One Love”
Perhaps the most ambitious song on Illmatic, “One Love” finds Nas playing with narrative structure. The verses are formulated as if they’re directed towards an incarcerated friend, and that narrowed focus allows room for Nas’ penchant for detail to shine through in a new way. Nas inquires about those on the inside while explaining what the colorful cast of characters in Queensbridge have been up to both tragically (Jerome’s niece) and tragically-comic (Shorty Doo-Wop). The song emphasizes the change that occurs on both sides of a jail cell, with an almost-reassuring “one love” the only thread holding those two sides together. — W.H.
06. “Take It in Blood”
It Was Written (1996)
“Take It in Blood” is often touted by careful listeners as one of Nas’ most complete records, boasting Esco floss raps and a masterfully manipulated sample of Fantastic Four’s “Mixed Up Moods and Attitudes,” which, upon being sped up, feels like a bolt of electricity passing through a wind chime. The Live Squad production has a mystical feel to it. The record’s sashaying beatbreak provides ample room for the Queens legend to strut; words tumble nimbly off his tongue like a slick-talking used car salesman.
This is Nas at his most swaggering. There is an unimpeachable confidence that is perceptible just from his cadence alone; he tucks outlandish new ideas into the ones he’s already stated matter-of-factly, bending phrases in ways lesser MCs wouldn’t dare attempt. “Take It in Blood” is perhaps the least appreciated classic in the Nas canon. It remains, to this day, one of his best-kept secrets. — S.P.
05. “The World Is Yours”
Throughout Illmatic, Nas vividly paints a picture of a specific world. His world, the one in which he was born alone and will die alone, but also the world of his people throughout Queens not eating. All of this makes his response to the question posed by Pete Rock in the hook (“Who’s world is this?”) ring true: “It’s yours,” but also, “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.” — W.H.
04. “Made You Look”
God’s Son (2002)
“Now let’s get it all in perspective/ For all y’all’s enjoyment, a song y’all can step with” is perhaps a greater summation of the boasting “Made You Look” than anything that has ever been printed, simply because it so concisely epitomizes the persona that is Escobar: he, at his most boastful, is a manifestation of rap’s raw energy, its feel. The same alter ego that has often driven Illmatic stans bonkers is the creator of the purest braggadocio in East Coast rap, one emulated by many from the Boroughs and beyond, and its charisma is magnetic.
“Made You Look” is borderline jiggy rap that shoots from the hip. Don’t say his car’s topless; say the titties are out. King of the town? Yeah, he’s been that… and he knows his place on rap’s Mt. Rushmore is secure. The resulting self-absorption that comes from such security produces a timeless record that exudes passion for the essence of the culture. — S.P.
Looking at the career arcs of both rappers, it’s impossible to compare Jay-Z and Nas at this point. Still, despite apologies from both sides as well as several collaborative releases, the debate continues. In any Jay vs. Nas argument, it’s impossible to avoid referencing either “Ether” or “The Takeover.” When placed side by side, though, the winner is obvious. How Nas can follow a line insulting Cock-a-Fella for “dealing with emotions like bitches” by telling Jay-Z he loves him because he’s a brother will forever be evidence of Nas’ lyrical superiority as well as the complexity of the situation.
The sad truth of beef is that both sides often lose, but since Jay vs. Nas has already seen its happy ending, it can retroactively be judged as a proper contest. There are too many well-placed jabs on “Ether” alone for the ruling to ever fall in Hov’s favor. — W.H.
02. “Life’s a Bitch”
It has been argued that AZ outshines Nas on “Life’s a Bitch,” but it only seems that way because the guest vocalist had something to prove. With a slot as the lone feature on Illmatic, AZ’s stakes were high. He delivered under pressure, with a flow that rivals Nas’ without surpassing it. Nas’ accusation on “Ether” that Eminem murdered Jay-Z on his own shit rings true, yet AZ’s guest verse merely complements what remains a near-perfect track. The song ends by bridging the gap between young Nasir and his father, Olu Dara, who closes with a trumpet solo. Rarely has bleakness sounded this good. — W.H.
01. “New York State of Mind”
When it comes to romanticizing the city that never sleeps, there’s Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and then there’s “New York State of Mind,” a gritty, first-person depiction of NYC street life. Both are exceptional in manifesting ethos. Only the latter was produced by DJ Premier. Sure, you might argue that the conversational retelling of a day in the life of a street hustler doesn’t necessarily fit romanticism’s aesthetic to a tee, but a hip-hop head’s heart flutters at its mere mention.
“New York State of Mind” contains everything you need to know about Nas in a vacuum: he is an observationalist well learned in criminology and adept at conveying the minute details of a scene, ones the guys that got caught missed. His technical skill is jaw-dropping, and he flips syllables effortlessly with a fluent agility that diagrams each and every component of his narrative. When considering its place in culture, both as a sonic incarnation of New York City and a lynchpin of one of the most important albums in the history of the genre, it’s hard to disregard “New York State of Mind”’s impact. It’s impossible to disregard its brilliance. — S.P.
Nas’ 10 Best Songs Playlist: