There’s rap as literature, rap as pop, rap as grown folks art and rap as weaponry. There’s no complete discussion of these permutations or most in between without Nas. Illmatic is a classic, “Hate Me Now” still rings off in clubs, and he’s enough of an authority to have fans Googling “Fox News founded by black man” in earnest. That we’re still talking about him with this fervor is something of a miracle. Not only has Nas outlasted nearly every other street rapper from his era, but he’s survived the most famous beef in hip-hop history, that late ‘90s period of his artistic decline, and New York as a whole falling off as the center of rap. Still, he’s not quite the same all-seeing prodigy fans fell in love with a quarter-century ago — and recent abuse allegations have altered many fans’ relationship with him in a way they never could have guessed at the time. But at 45, he’s still releasing new albums, investing in small busineses and exercising the creative freedom to rhyme over an Al Jarreau sample.
The latest Escobar event was the release of The Lost Tapes 2, which debuts this week at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. The first edition collected leftovers from the period of I Am… and Nastradamus, as well as his Stillmatic sessions. Some would claim it’s the best body of work Nas released last decade. And that’s not a slight — it eclipses many other rapper’s catalogs as well. Nas’ respected history of B-sides and deep cuts stretch well beyond The Lost Tapes, though. Here is the best of that decades-long discography.
“Book of Rhymes” (God’s Son, 2002)
High-concept songs have been Nas’ calling card since Illmatic. “Book of Rhymes” finds Nas rapping through his written lines only to repeatedly start over unsatisfied with his bars. It’s 2002’s equivalent to re-reading your drafted tweets (if the Alchemist made beats for such activities). “Book of Rhymes” isn’t as indulgent as that sounds, though. In addition to being an earnest look into the writing process, most of the tossed-away ideas could’ve grown into fully formed songs had Nas stuck with them. This is especially true for the last lines, where Nas admits he’s jealous of his infant son because he can’t see the world through his innocent eyes.
“These Are Our Heroes” (Street’s Disciples, 2004)
Black critics were wary of stereotypes during the aughties’ rise of hip-hop and urban culture in the eyes of the white mainstream audience, including in film (Soul Plane), television (The Parkers), and sports (hip-hop-influenced style). Nas, the vanguard of realness, was one of them. He spends “These Are Our Heroes” taking direct aim at Black figures he deems dishonorable, a list that includes Kobe Bryant following his very public sexual assault case; Shirley Temple’s black house maid Bojangles; and Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays the “safe black man” in the eyes of many. The counterargument to “These Are Our Heroes” is that Nas’ definition of a strong black man is too narrow (his main example is Scarface). But the line “You don’t know what you feel, y’all too safe” sidesteps that critique towards a larger question: Are these stars working on their own accord or for white approval?
“Project Windows” feat. Ronald Isley (Nastradamus, 1999)
Before it became a Hennessy commercial premise, Nas’ observational skills came directly from his upbringing: He witnessed the hood’s drama from his Queensbridge project windows. “Project Windows” pays homage to this with the help of Ronald Isley’s mournful cries. The realities — homicides, adults whose stories of ‘70s excess are hidden inside their ravaged bodies, violative police — are given in a barrage, but Nas’ focus never gets loss within the madness. The compactness of his delivery symbolizes the tragic setting: This is all happening within young Nasir’s purview.
“Fried Chicken” feat. Busta Rhymes (Untitled, 2008)
Untitled dragged from how Nas’ overserious focus fell apart from the poor production and his weakened pen. But the album’s strongest moment is also its silliest. “Fried Chicken” takes the timeless tradition of comparing black women to the treasured part of southern cuisine and stretches it across almost three minutes. The concept lends an excuse for Nas to throw together a string of loose pickup lines, but his lines are too quotable (“You a bird but you ain’t a ki’/Got wings but you can’t fly away from me”) and his rhythm is too fluid for that banality. Busta Rhymes follows up with a verse just as good and maybe doubly as funny.
Of course, Nas would take his love for fried chicken past an extended metaphor. He’s an investor in the gourmet southern food chain, Sweet Chick.
“You’re Da Man” (Stillmatic, 2001)
Stillmatic is considered the album where Nas resparked his fire, but that effect was also symbiotic. “You’re the Man” marks Large Professor’s first appearance on a Nas record since Illmatic’s classic closer “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Stillmatic is a title that both evokes nostalgia and a present urgency, a contradiction Large blends seamlessly with his drum’s added thoomp and the smoky string sample. It reaches inward toward something prophetic, an adjective that’s been Nas’ calling card since “Live at the BBQ.” His verses flips surrealistically from the streets to the biblical (“I saw a dead bird flying through a broken sky”), becoming powerful examples of Nas’ gift for orating brutality and beauty.
“You Won’t See Me Tonight” feat. Aaliyah (I Am…, 1999)
Nas has a hit-or-miss legacy when it comes to pop ambitions. I Am… at least has two of the former, one of which is obviously the P. Diddy featuring “Hate Me Now.” The other is “You Won’t See Me Tonight,” which finds Nas sounding adroit againts the sound of the future Timbaland and Aaliyah were pioneering. “You Won’t See Me Tonight” hints at the potential of future Timbaland/Nas collaborations, but that turned out to be a false hope: I Am…’s follow-up Nastradamus featured the “You Owe Me,” a.k.a. the one where the hook tells a woman to “owe me back like forty acres to Blacks.” Some things just work together only in a specific moment, and “You Won’t See Me Tonight” was that flash.
“A Queens Story” (Life Is Good, 2012)
Jay-Z’s “If you escaped what I escaped/ You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too” lines in “Niggas in Paris” is a popular quotable, but it’s poignant too. The common narrative of the Hovs and Escos of hip-hop claim that they escaped violence and poverty’s destruction because of determination and talent — which is true, but it ignores how there’s other folks like them who never made it out because they did not have luck. On “A Queens Story,” Nas remembers how he could’ve been shot to death alongside Stretch if the producer didn’t drop him off beforehand. If Life Is Good is Nas attempt to find clarity through his blessings and losses, “A Queens Story” serves as its thrilling testimony. Unlike Jay-Z, Nas’ story doesn’t end with him sipping champagne overseas. It ends bitterly: A majority of his Queensbridge crew never made it out with him. It’s just Nas, “the only black in the club with rich Yuppie kids.”
“Accident Murderers” feat. Rick Ross (Life Is Good, 2012)
Good things happened when Rick Ross and Nas connected in 2012. Escobar delivered arguably his finest verse in years on Rozay’s Rich Forever cut “Triple Beam Dreams,” a compelling short flick that sees young Nas as a failed drug dealer leering at a society designed to destroy him. Months later came “Accident Murderers,” one of the first hints that Life Is Good was going to be a top five in Nas’ catalog. While some might’ve argued Nas lost his creative spark before this year, this organ-riding jam showed that he simply needed to focus. He takes a simple premise — needless homicides — and emboldens it with his signature eye for detail. The slain’s quirk of having that toothpick at the side of his mouth, and the mournful streams of alcohol spilt on the sidewalk are palpable here. There’s even a “One Love”-referencing Easter egg in there for good measure.
“2nd Childhood” (Stillmatic, 2001)
Stillmatic’s targets included Jay-Z, unreliable fellow Queensbridge natives, unnamed haters, and people who won’t grow up. Dubbed “so f–king smart” by Chris Rock, “2nd Childhood” finds Nas aiming his ire at adults who refuse to act it. It sounds like an obvious topic to moralize about, but Nas takes it to a higher level by embracing the show-don’t-tell convention. He doesn’t have to tell you to be disgusted at the 31-year-old messing up his mother’s furniture with his friends watching Comic View, because you already know that you hate to see it. “2nd Childhood” does have the added bonus of having DJ Premier in his pocket. The glittering keys and vocal chops bring a bitter wistful wind to Nas’ disappointment.
“Still Dreaming” feat. Kanye West and Chrisette Michele (Hip-Hop Is Dead, 2006)
Before Nasir, Kanye West and Nas collaborations all proved they were a good fit even though the former produced one of the greatest diss tracks ever at the latter’s expense. That might not have been as true if Nas actually kept his James Cagney voice for “Still Dreaming.” Fortunately, Nas keeps a weary, listenable voice as he sneers at men refusing to take responsibility for themselves and remembers a high school classmate with a foot in crime and journalism. Kanye, being typical 2004-06 Kanye, brings a plush soul sample and a few quotables to make this a clear Hip-Hop Is Dead highlight.
“Queens Get the Money” (Untitled, 2008)
The record of broken promises. Nas reaches back decades into his biography for a string of bars that sound messianic over Jay Electronica’s piano loops. After his famous “Live at the BBQ” appearance, the QB legend leaned a bit more into tight verse structuring than one-liners. But “Queens Get the Money,” Untitled’s intro, returns to that quick wit to rank high in Nas’ catalog in quotables per quarter-minute, bouncing through sight gags (“I’m over their heads like a bulimic on a seesaw”) and self-mythologizing (“I’m Huey P in Louis V at the eulogy throwing Molotovs for Emmett”) with ease. It’s lean and focused, essentially the opposite of what Untitled turned out to be. We’ll spare you the Jay Electronica joke.
“Destroy & Rebuild” (Stillmatic, 2001)
Although Queensbridge plays an indisputably large part in hip-hop lore, its alumni wasn’t doing so hot when it came to maintaining mainstream recognition and street props at the millunnium’s start. Mobb Deep’s R&B joint “Hey Luv (Anything)” had fans squinting to see if this was really the same duo behind “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines),” AZ and Nature couldn’t get a wide audience after Nas-led supergroup The Firm split, Cormega was resigned to becoming a cult classic, and Noreaga took a little while to follow “Superthug” with “Nothin’.” A rescendent Nas was the main draw, and his fellow QB natives being that close to someone of his stature pushed him to return to the recurring the envy. While his war against Jay-Z was the main draw, “Destroy & Rebuild” featured Nas picking apart his neighborhood rivals with the belief he’s only guarding Queensbridge’s proud legacy. Its disses are venomous because they come from a personal place: The backhanded “Mega, I hope you blow so I’m sayin’ your name” stings as much as anything on “Ether.” Still, both tracks are marred by homophobic slurs.
“Undying Love” (I Am…, 1999)
The collection that includes then-career nadir “Dr. Knockboot” ends in a tragic love story. “Undying Love” is an example of Nas taking his love of physical storytelling details to extremes. When the narrator comes home from Vegas to find his would-be fiancée cheating on him, his violent response ends in his suicide after he accidentally shoots her. The descent is a claustrophobic thanks to brutal imagery like the blood on his lips after his final kiss with his dead love. So yes, it’s a downer ending especially after Nas capped off the prior album with the aspirational “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).” But I Am… was planned to be a double album before it was ruined by leaks; it’s probably not that easy to remain optimistic after such a disaster.
“Rewind” (Stillmatic, 2001)
Nas’ reconnection with Large Professor during the Stillmatic sessions delivered album highlight “You’re Da Man”; grown man rap cut “Stay Chisel,” a cut from Large’s 1st Class; and the essential “Rewind.” The latter even took the producer by surprise. By his account, Large left Nas a beat after an hours-long hangout session; he’d come back the next day to find Nas with this verse with a story told in reverse. It takes a level of precision that few other Nas are capable of for “Rewind” not to turn into a novelty song. The song is about a murder, so Nas naturally plays it straight. Still, the concept allows the dark humor to naturally leap out. In 2001, Nas was back with a tale of reverse fellatio and vodka-cocktail-on-the-rocks vomit.
“No Idea’s Original” (The Lost Tapes, 2002)
The Lost Tapes features songs that were simply too good to be left off Nas’ actual albums and tracks that clearly aren’t fully formed. “No Idea’s Original” is the former despite being the latter. We start off with a hook that repeats the truism. It never pops up again, and instead, Nas rolls through a verse that abruptly ends after two minutes, like he forgot his notebook has a finite number of pages. But even Nas’ drafts are examples of his writing’s proficiency. In this hood portrait, philosophies (“It’s like God or guns: Which is better protection?”), trauma (“Let’s witness, the horrific, the stench’ll make you nauseous/ See what I seen every day I live with this torture”), and scars (“Even with sleep I’m duckin’ nines in my dreams”) are made clear as bone. There are over forty bars and not a single one feels wasted.
“Black Republican” feat. Jay-Z (Hip-Hop Is Dead, 2006)
Jay-Z and Nas’ war involved gun threats, homophobic slurs, baby mother drama, and a scrapped lynched effigy. Any of those issues by themselves is enough for beef to last until the grave. Somehow, the former belligerents got to a point where they could make a song about enjoying weath after being born poor. Propelled by a triumphant sample of The Godfather II’s score, “Black Republican” is a Horatio Alger-type war cry. While the quotables and anti-snitching sentiments are numerous, “Black Republican” sticks because it sounds like they’re trying really hard to sell you on their friendship. They step into each other’s verses with ad-libs and Jay-Z, who’s not known for dancing, says he’s giddy enough to do so as the beat builds. Becoming wealthy project alumni would again pop up as a theme on their successive collaborations, 2007’s “Success” and 2013’s “BBC”
“Last Real Nigga Alive” (God’s Son, 2002)
“Last Real Nigga Alive” is essential by default because it’s the last major entry in the Nas vs. Jay-Z’s feud. Instead of going for a knockout blow, Nas elects to rap a mini-memoir that argues this thing of theirs is bigger than both of them. There’s a fair share of chest-beating — we’re in a beef after all — but “Last Real Nigga Alive” is an effective listen because the unforced conviction with which Nas tells his story. Every story has two sides, but the sober concision he has when he admits Biggie’s “Kick in the Door” was aimed at him, explains why his ex Carmen Bryan had an affair with Jay-Z, and points to the cause of Hov’s resentment toward Nas (he wouldn’t give him a verse during the Reasonable Doubt sessions) makes him a compelling authority even post-”Takeover.” Nas’ parting words — “I was Scarface, Jay was Manolo/ It hurt me when I had to kill him and his whole squad for dolo” — rung with finality even before the saga officially came to a close in 2005, when Nas joined Jay-Z on-stage during the I Declare War tour.
“Black Girl Lost” (It Was Written, 1996)
Another link between Jay-Z and Nas was Donald Goines. The late urban fiction author was the inspiration behind Hov’s deep cut “This Life Forever,” which was for an unreleased film adaptation. Nas’ “Black Girl Lost” took after the Goines bleak novel of the same name. Though the It Was Written… cut is also a man’s take on being a black woman in a loveless world, Nas’ narrative is less graphic and takes advantage of the album’s mainstream aesthetic. This means it gets buoyant production by the Trackmasters and leaves room for JoJo Hailey’s tendered performance on the hook. The entire thing becomes more of a two-step than it has any right to be.
“U Gotta Love It” (The Lost Tapes, 2002)
Housing projects and rap-game drama pop up as two sources of Nas’ angst in every one of his projects. Still, it’s accurate to describe Mr. Jones’ relationship with either as more of a complicated love. “U Gotta Love It” borderline sarcastically lays that out. Nas can’t all the way hate the drug game, jealous competitors, and fake thugs because they’re part of what made him Nas. “U Gotta Love It” is The Lost Tapes’ earworm because of L.E.S’ minimalistic production, a loop of dreamy keys and sparse bass lines. In a way it acts like Nas’ straight man, circling in the background during his cathartic verses before becoming his mattress as he leans back to exhale the refrain.
“Doo-Rags” (The Lost Tapes, 2002)
“Doo-Rags” proves the point of the hook to “No Idea’s Original,” because the concept is essentially “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” The Lost Tapes’ opener is another entry in hip-hop’s tradition of nostalgia songs, but for Nas, the memories of Queensbridge forgotten rap heroes do not come without the systems that had a hand in birthing the genre. A young Nas was penning letters to his loved ones in jail; years later, he’s still doing the same even as durags make a comeback. He artfully describes the idea of cycles as not just the way of the ghetto but as something biblical (“Your paper money was the death of Christ/ And all these shorties comin’ up just resurrect your life”), but “Doo Rags” ultimately centers around the harsh couplet in the hook: “The doo-rags are back, fitted hats, snorkels and furs/ Rikers Island buses still packed, what’s the word?”
“Live Nigga Rap” feat. Mobb Deep (It Was Written, 1996)
Prodigy and Nas’ falling out by the Stillmatic era was a tragedy because that Mobb Deep connection birthed some of the hardest records of the ‘90s. Each member of the trio brought their own bleak colors to their tracks, and that alchemy is at its most potent on the lean sprint of It Was Written’s late cut “Live Nigga Rap.” Prodigy starts things off by showcasing one of his most treasured skills: Making words that don’t rhyme rhyme (“Peep the nine milli/ Now undress, you know the drill-y”). Havoc menaces by his lonesome with a gun in hand before Nas dazzles with a barrage of tight internal rhymes (“Escobar 600/ You just a crumb inside a world where the rich run it/ Curriculum of a mathologist”). It’s a thrilling rush to get all the gun talk out of the way to make room for Lauryn Hill, who brings some inspiration for the African diaspora in follow-up track, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).”
“Take It in Blood” (It Was Written, 1996)
It Was Written marked the debut of Nas’ mafioso alter ego, Nas Escobar. The project also perhaps rolled out Nas the Mystic. The Ultramagnetic MCs sample that forms the hook on “Take It in Blood” is the prodigy’s way of telling you he truly does represent a proud strain of hip-hop. But their words swirl about like incantations, street hosannahs that connect the most surreal set of lyrics Nas ever fit into one song. There’s maybe about five percent of the rap listening population who understood every reference he makes in these five minutes during the first runthrough. That’s fine: Nas’ raspy prophetic hum convincingly bends everything he touches on here to his own reality, and it intoxicates.
“Represent” (Illmatic, 1994)
The rapper thing to do is to dedicate some album time bigging up yourself, beating your chest for your hood and shouting out the boys (see Mobb Deep’s “Party’s Over). Illmatic isn’t above this trope, but what elevates “Represent” is the simple fact that Nas raps better than most rappers over beats from producers better than most producers. Over DJ Premier’s carnivalesque Lee Irwin sample, Nas rattles off a seemingly infinite number of ways to exclaim that he’s young, black and confident. His flow elongates or condenses into rapid fire, giving his boasts a sense of momentum as he bounces along. He spends the last minute doing shoutouts to his mates, though he’d be feuding with some of them as the ‘90s died down.
On the surface, the outro is simply a young brother giving props, but there’s ultimately a gravitas to it. The 20th anniversary Illmatic documentary’s most sobering scene has Nas’ brother Jungle pointing out that a majority of the men featured on Illmatic’s inlet photograph are either locked up or dead. “Represent,” as well as the rest of Illmatic, is their monument.
“I Gave You Power” (It Was Written, 1996)
In which Nas gives a gun a conscious in a neighborhood where men forsake their own to survive. It’s a fantastical perspective, but it’s used to draw reality — where children die, bodies are broken and accidental gunfire succeed in “making niggas memories” — with shaper lines. “I Gave You Power” also offers some of Nas’ sharpest social critique. Tired of the violence he exists to commit, the gun pledges to jam when its owner gets into an altercation. It does and the owner is shot to death, but the weapon’s relief is short-lived when someone else picks it up. The cycle continues. No one truly has power here.
“Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” (Illmatic, 1994)
The soulful coos DJ Premier samples on this all-timer are either magical or haunted depending what you make of it. Nas blurs those descriptors as he’s orating his vision of the ghetto. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” is Illmatic’s nostalgia joint, but its heart mainly speaks of a complicated love of the home that many who grew up in the hood can relate to. They’re buildings of love and trauma, but to deny any of it would be to deny part of yourself. So the stunning sense of empathy with which Nas portrays the infamous Queensbridge Houses makes sense. He raps and coalesces his vocabulary as if the memory of those dice-rollers, imprisoned men, and park jams depend on every syllable. Ultimately, “Memory Lane” isn’t just another showcase that proved Nas was really worth the hype; like the Heineken poured for the dead, it’s tribute.