On the 20th anniversary of his revered Illmatic debut, we take a look back at the journey that would bring Nas into rap glory. From his raw, poetic start to his murky taper-off into commercialism, to the revival of his artistry through beef and heartbreak, here is The Evolution Of Nas.
The legendary DJ Premier has engineered his share of studio sessions, producing all-time greats like Biggie, Jay-Z and KRS-One. Asked for his most memorable recording moment, he turns to a young Nas and the opening song of arguably the tightest rap album of all time.
“I don’t know how to start this,” Nasty Nas mumbles over the early snares of 1994’s “NY State of Mind.” It wasn’t a humble adlib; it was raw admission. Premo is banging on the window of the vocal yelling, “We’re recording! Get ready!” Then young Nas—the voice heads had been clamoring to sprinkle more jewels since he roasted “Live at the BBQ” to carcinogens as a teenager—erupted: Rappers, I monkey-flip ’em…
“Everyone in the studio was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that,” Premier recalls, “was his first album. We was like, Yo, this guy is gonna be big.”
Since Nasir Jones was nine, he wanted to hold a microphone. “It was like something that possessed me. Something I was born to,” he told me when Illmatic celebrated its 10th birthday. Now it’s 20, the same age Nas was upon his debut backspun the rap world on its ear. “Some kids were into other shit. For me it was breakdancing, rapping, graffiti, DJing—even as I grew older, that was my BET, that was my cartoons, my everything else.”
The first stage of Nas the recording artist was all hunger and lyricism, poetry pinpointed at your head. He was heralded at the second coming of Rakim for his ability to impress with his wordplay and crisp cadence while simultaneously weaving stories, painting vivid cold worlds as his breath fogged the project window. With nine songs, he had won the respect of producers, emcees, legends and any kid with a Sport Walkman. He had also set a ridiculous standard for which all other efforts would be measured against.
The Second Coming’s second go-round brought his first No. 1 album and a switch of style. Scooping up the Trackmasters, Nas traded his army jacket for a pink sports coat in the “Street Dreams” video. Although the writing never faltered (“I Gave You Power”), with a little money and fame, Nas was recast as a Mafioso don. He cliqued up to headline The Firm (with Foxy Brown, AZ, Nature/Cormega) under Dr. Dre’s guidance, and his songs—previously perfect for hissy cassette decks—got glossier as he aimed at radio with R. Kelly and Lauryn Hill duets.
With a taste of major Hype Williams video budget and radio play, Nas pushed all in. He took a stab at acting in 1998’s Belly and recruited pop-rap impresario Puff Daddy to lead off 1999’s I Am…, his third album, and ladies’ man Ginuwine for Nastradamus, his fourth. Original fans bristled hearing their lyrical deity bragging about his diamond bracelet and demanding for reparations next to a hips shaking in shiny pants. If the shark had been jumped yet, it would be with “Oochie Wally.” Queensbridge no longer seemed grimy and introspective but rather obsessed with chasing skirts and Billboard status. The streets’ great hope had begun writing within the margins.
When Jay-Z ripped on Nas’s spotty artistic path on 2001’s “Takeover,” he did the world a favour and brought the nasty back. Rediscovering his fight and his voice, battle-mode Nas shot back at Jay-Z with the scathing “Ether,” a razorblade stashed on Stillmatic—his fifth LP winking back to his first. Creatively, the new century brought us a more textured Nas. He began to show his versatility a writer, and the pen was always his sharpest sword.
He could be combative, inspirational (“I Can,” for his daughter), melancholy (“Dance,” for his mother), mind-bending (“Rewind” is a screenplay in reverse), documentarian (“U.B.R.”), earnest (“One Mic”), autobiographical (“Poppa Was a Playa”), or whimsically old-school (“Virgo). He could also throw down the hammer of Thor and add to the canon of Untouchable Rap Songs (“Made You Look”).
“Before God’s Son, the music was getting real watered down again,” Nas said in 2004. “There was something lacking. Nobody was really taking a risk.”
The risks kept coming as Nas began to hook each new opus on a controversial peg, perhaps to stir sales and/or conversation. Hip Hop Is Dead positioned Nas as the elder statesman, a matured cultural gatekeeper taking stock of and doing his damndest to preserve the thing he loved, the thing that made us look. He made peace with Jay-Z on “Black Republican” and dug up a rap encyclopedia full of faded stars for three separate posse-cut remixes of “Where Are They Now?” Untitled was supposed to be titled Nigger, but the suits at the record company weren’t going for it. Still, Nas posed with whip scars on his bare back for the cover art and railed against Fox News, poverty, fried chicken, and America’s ugly history of two-facedness. Ginuwine’s dance moves were nowhere to be found.
Two decades later, Nas has come full circle, embracing the no-famous-guest-appearances debut that he had, by turns, tried to match or avoid. Entering his classic-rock phase, he began touring on the strength of a promise to perform Illmatic in its entirety. In divorce, he seemed to salvage an artistic peace, writing his best full-length in years, with Life Is Good—a smart grown-man rap record that balances wisdom (“Daughters”) with heartbreak (“Bye Baby”) while winking at those stuck-in-the-’90s heads who still believe the wack emcee needs a good monkey-flipping over a funky rhythm.
“Sometimes I listen to Illmatic and it sounds old school,” Nas said in 2004. “Sometimes I listen to it and it sounds untouchable.”
Perspectives change, but 20 years later the listening is constant. — Luke Fox