11. Nastradamus (1999)
“Is it Oochie Wally, or is it One Mic? Is it Black Girl Lost, or shorty owes you for ice?” JAY-Z’s later barbs at Nas on his song “Blueprint 2” held true for Nastradamus, Nas’ second album in 1999, after releasing I Am… months earlier. Nas’ fourth album suffers from identity crisis, with thoughtful songs like “Project Windows” and “Last Words” being offset by trite, predictable records like “You Owe Me” and “Big Girl.” It seemed like Nas was still appearing to discover himself here, and while he would redeem himself a couple years later with Stillmatic, Nastradamus lives as a blemish on an otherwise godly resume.
10. Street’s Disciple (2004)
It seems like every rap great eventually gives in to their whims to make a double album, and Nas is no different. Street’s Disciple has highlights like “Thief’s Theme” and “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim),” but it’s largely an album that hurts from a lack of restraint. The album has concepts like “The Makings of a Perfect Bitch” and “Remember the Times” that come across as contrived and awkward, and its sprawling nature of more than 87 minutes is a lot to sift through.
9. Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)
The title of Nas’ eighth solo album started more conversations than the music did itself, with his “Hip Hop Is Dead” assertion jumpstarting industry-wide debates about the genre’s vitality in the mid-2000s. Nas dedicates the first third of the album to paying homage to the greats of yesteryear (“Where Are They Now”) and lamenting the state of the industry (“Carry On Tradition”), and he spends the rest of his time leading by example with artists who are up to the challenge. “Black Republicans” doesn’t disappoint as the long-awaited collab with JAY-Z, and “Hustlers” makes magic with a Dr. Dre beat and cameo by The Game.
Nas also enlisted Kanye West production for the first time on one of his solo albums here (aside from The Lost Tapes), and the results are flawless: “Still Dreaming” sees both artists floating over a soulful sample, and “Let There Be Light” beams with the hope that hip-hop may have a shot at survival after all.
8. Untitled (2008)
When it came time to follow up his assertion that hip hop was dead, Nas delivered an even more controversial message. Nas originally planned to name his ninth album the written-out N-word, with him and his then-wife Kelis wearing clothing that showed the word in bedazzled letters at that year’s Grammy Awards to promote the message. The intended title never made it to stores, but Nas still used the album to uniquely chronicle the black experience.
Louis Farrakhan and President-elect Barack Obama are treated with equal respect on “Untitled” and “Black President,” while “Sly Fox” critiques of propoganda-spreading conservative media. Meanwhile, the rapper teams with Eban Thomas and The Last Poets to exalt black resilience on “You Can’t Stop Us Now,” and “Testify” fantasizes retribution to make America pay for its sins of oppression. Conceptual songs like “Project Roach” and “Fried Chicken” may have been a little out there, and some of the best songs from these sessions ended up on The N----r Tape, a pre-album release with DJ Green Lantern. But Untitled is still a quality release from Nas that has aged well with current times of increased tension, a predecessor for newer racial ruminations like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
7. I Am... (1999)
In an alternate universe, I Am… would be only be matched by Illmatic in Nas’ catalog. The original version, designed to be a double disc, had classic cuts like “Fetus,” “Blaze a 50,” and “Poppa Was a Playa,” conceptual gems that showed the growth of Nas’ writing in the four to five years after Illmatic. Unfortunately, the album was one of the first ever to suffer from a major MP3 leak -- and in those days, such circumstances often meant reworking the album altogether for any hopes that it would sell.
The resulting album wasn’t as perfect, but it was still damn good: “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. 2,” “Nas Is Like,” and “Undying Love” showcase his remarkable storytelling and bar work, and the Diddy-assisted “Hate Me Now” is still one of his most energetic songs ever. DMX and Scarface also offer solid cameos. But the album is also marred with inconsistency: “Big Things” is one of the worst records Nas has ever recorded with its stilted flows, and songs like “Dr. Knockboot” and the Aaliyah-asissted “You Won’t See Me Tonight” don’t feel natural coming from the street poet.
6. Life Is Good (2012)
The last time we heard from Nas was in 2012, when he was wrapping up a divorce from his ex-wife Kelis. The closure of a longtime union will have anyone in a contemplative mood, and Life Is Good reflects on Nas’ past while looking forward into different elements of adulthood. “Daughters” considers his duty as a father after his child embarrassingly tweeted a photo of a box of condoms, and “Bye Baby” brings finality to his marriage by fondly remembering the good times. But it’s not just the Here, My Dear vibes that the album was marketed with: Nas also displays his Queensbridge roots on songs like “Loco-Motive” and “Back When,” and he dumbs out in classic Nas fashion on “The Don.” It also doesn’t hurt that Life Is Good has arguably his best production since Illmatic, as No I.D. and longtime collaborator Salaam Remi offer a hearty serving of soul samples, boom bap and live instruments.
5. God’s Son (2002)
After Nas had revitalized his career with the fiery Stillmatic, sixth album God’s Son gave him a chance to be more contemplative. His mother died of cancer a few months before its release, and he honors her with the gorgeous, mournful “Dance,” a collaboration with his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. But the thoughtfulness carries through other cuts as well: “Heaven” ponders the afterlife, the Beethoven-sampling “I Can” attempts to empower children, and even the JAY-Z beef is brought to a close with the level-headed “Last Real N---a Alive.” But there’s also the classic Nas that everyone fell in love with: “Get Down” gives vivid backstories of criminals in New York City, and the bar work of “Made You Look” made for one of the best singles of Nas’ career.
4. The Lost Tapes (2002)
One of the most revered albums from Nas’ catalog isn’t really an album at all -- it’s more of a compilation. Lost Tapes dropped a year after Nas had resurrected his career with his beef with JAY-Z, and the disc was a collection of outtakes from the sessions from Stillmatic and I Am… In some sense, Lost Tapes is revered based on its idea: the vision of a vault of stashed away Nas songs carries a bit of mystique that adds to his story. But also, the music really is that good: Producers like Alchemist and L.E.S. contribute soulful, lo-fi beats, adding to the album’s dusty presentation. Nas’ brushstrokes on the melodic “Doo Rags,” distress on the spiraling “Drunk By Myself,” and imaginative perspective on “Fetus” further prove his one-of-a-kind talent.
3. It Was Written (1996)
It Was Written is one of the most divisive albums in Nas’ catalog: Some viewed it as the beginning of the end, while others see it as a worthy successor to Illmatic. While Nas’ debut was deemed an instant classic in hip-hop circles, his sophomore project showed aspirations for radio play, with The Trackmasters giving the album a commercial sheen. In some cases, the results are phenomenal: the Lauryn Hill-featured “If I Ruled The World” is one of the best rap singles of the decade, and Nas’ lyricism isn’t dumbed down with the slickness of “Street Dreams.” But as Nas would find out later, he’s still best when spitting that raw: “I Gave You Power” pushes his creativity as he personifies a gun upset with its flippant owner, and on “Affirmative Action,” he gets busy with Cormega, AZ and Foxy Brown as The Firm. The resentment for Nas’ radio-friendly sound is understandable, but It Was Written remains a hip hop treasure.
“I've been fucked over, left for dead, dissed and forgotten. Luck ran out, they hoped that I'd be gone, stiff and rotten.” Nas’ proclamation in the second verse of “Ether” may be tough to imagine now, but it’s an accurate depiction of where his public perception was in 2001: It Was Written, I Am… and particularly Nastradamus seemed too far removed from the near perfection of Illmatic, and it appeared that JAY-Z had dealt Nas a death blow with “Takeover,” from JAY's critically acclaimed Blueprint album. But the boldly titled Stillmatic showed that Nas was every bit the lyricist that fans had fallen in love with six years earlier. It wasn’t just the battle-winning “Ether” or the energy of “Got Ur Self A…” -- the album shined through Nas’ abandonment of the radio attempts from his previous albums, and a renewed dedication to his bread and butter of meaningful storytelling. “What Goes Around” features some of the best writing of Nas’ career, with narratives of karmic repercussions, while the DJ Premier-laced “2nd Childhood” expertly illustrates a man and woman being held back by immaturity.
Illmatic isn’t only Nas’ best album - it might be the consensus choice among hip-hop fans for the best rap album of all time. There isn’t much about Nas’ iconic debut that hasn’t already been said in countless reviews, lists and documentaries, but all of its praise is justified: Illmatic united the prodigious teen lyricist with an All-Star roster of all-time producer greats -- DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor -- for a vivid, emotive look into life as a youngster in the streets of Queensbridge. Nas paints a picture of his hometown with “N.Y. State of Mind,” writes a heartfelt letter to a homie in prison on “One Love,” and shows euphoric self confidence on “The World Is Yours,” with rhyme schemes and flows for for days. Many critics have said that Nas never got back to the zenith he reached on his timeless debut, but other rappers would kill to have such a problem.