Zilla Rocca needs at least two mics.
With the release of DJ Khaled’s locksmith anthem “Nas Album Done” (that’s a major key), it reminded me that Nas is still the greatest Conventional Major Label Rapper. Since the release of It Was Written twenty years ago, Nas has created excitement for his new albums in the most consistently conservative way possible: rapping great on rando joints during the typical 3-5 years in between LP’s. Whether the forthcoming albums are worth a damn or not, the buildup songs always hit their mark.
Sometimes he merks a feature for an in-demand act of the moment. Other times, he dedicates the street single of his album to satisfy his Trapped in the ’90s Ninjas. The obvious question is why doesn’t he just make a full album of “Nas is Back!!!” songs instead of making a song like “Thief’s Theme” on an album next to Maxwell crooning about getting married?
I’ve stated it before on this venerable website how you can’t ever expect Nas to do what you want him to, and how that’s the mark of a true artist—one who doesn’t need love, only to fulfill his intuition and urges as best he can. The has led to a career of ups and downs that he acknowledges, and it lets me know that Nas’ forthcoming album will almost sound nothing like “Nas Album Done”. But if you compiled this list into a greatest hits package, you’ll see that Warming Up in the Bullpen Nas is still greater than just about any man whose ever touched a microphone.
“On the Real” feat Cormega & Kamakazee: Prod. by Marley Marl (1996)
This song gives you an idea of what the canned Nas x Marley Marl album would’ve sounded like. This song deadened that collaboration—Marley apparently took this classic shit that Nas destroyed, tacked on verses from more Queensbridge loyalty, then ran to the radio and played it without Nas’ permission. There’s alternative versions that feature Tragedy, Akineyle, and Capone-N-Noreaga. Marley treated the song like a testing ground for every rapper in Queens and was promptly kicked off Nas’ 2nd album, replaced by Trackmasters. Nas reclaimed it as a solo song on the 10th anniversary edition of Illmatic.
“Nas is Like”: Prod. by DJ Premier (1998)
I Am… is a wildly uneven third LP, but it gets remembered for being better than it was strictly off the strength of this single and “NY State of Mind 2.” “Nas is Like” might be the best Nas song ever made, and the entire theme is “Hey I know you might’ve hated that glossy mafioso shit but never forget I know how to tantalize you forever.”
“The Second Coming”: Prod. by N/A (2000)
After the firm flop and the tepid response to Nastradamus, Nas retreated to his hood for the communal compilation QB’s Finest. He reunited Juice Crewers Roxanne Shante, Marley, MC Shan, and Tragedy for “Da Bridge 2001,” but gave too much studio time to Millenium Thug, the most Y2K Rap name of all time. During this time, internet rap was just getting off the ground, and this song made the rounds on Real Audio players before the release of QB’s Finest. It’s another flashback to Illmatic, from the imagery of New York in the ’80s to the chopped up vocal samples from “Live at the BBQ.” If you heard this song in 2000, you lost your lunch when “Oochie Wally” dropped.
“Stillmatic Freestyle (AKA H-to-OMO)” (Jay-Z Diss) (2001)
Nas was the first rap superstar where the entire culture agreed at the same time he was cooked. Even though he was lyrically vicious on Nastradamus, the media (who carried around Illmatic like a mini-Bible in their pockets) turned on him and unfairly crushed the album, making all fans follow suit to this day. Nastradamus is better than Hip Hop is Dead, Untitled, God’s Son, and I Am… but in 2001, Jay-Z was the king and Nas was at his weakest in the eyes of the public.
“Ether” is the career saving salvo, a punchline riddled takedown that made the king bleed. But “Stillmatic Freestyle” is a clinically swift assassination of Hov over Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full (7 Minutes of Madness Coldcut Remix)” from 1988. His mother had just passed. His fans turned on him. He voices his weary position on this freestyle. It’s a letter to his mother first, a shot fired at Sean Carter, Roc-a-Fella’s roster, and Cormega second:
“Ma I’m sorry who the fuck I am, I can’t trust my fans,
Out of luck no constructive plans
My friends stay powedered up, I’m so drunk, can’t stand
You said If I sobered up I’d be a powerful man”
“Made You Look”: Prod. by Salaam Remi (2002)
This joint provided a blueprint for how Nas could’ve snuck onto the radio for the past 13 years—grimy block party joints with nods to the ’70s and ’80s. Any top five list of Nas singles has to include “Made You Look.” It also dropped in 2002, when The Eminem Show and Nellyville were the biggest albums of the year and Murda Inc was yet to be undone by 50 Cent.
God’s Son’s first week numbers (174K units) were still dwarfed by Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2, which went gold thanks to an RIAA loophole where you get twice the amount of sales for a double album. “Made You Look” was the anti-pop single that catered to his base and set a new expectation for Nas albums: he wouldn’t ever be as big as “If I Ruled the World” again, but he wouldn’t disavow what people loved about him.
“Thief’s Theme”: Prod. by Salaam Remi (2004)
“Thief’s Theme” was the lead single from Street’s Disciple, an album I re-arranged due to the bizarre length and styles put forth on the retail version. Released ten years after Illmatic, “Thief’s Theme” was understandably nostalgic—the chorus was lifted from “The World is Yours” on an album titled after Nas’ breakthrough verse on “Live at the BBQ. “Like “Made You Look,” the resulting album was a mixed bag with an inspired single built to titillate.
“We Major,” Kanye West f/ Nas, Really Doe, Tony Williams: Prod. by Kanye West (2005)
Cleverly sequenced on Late Registration after “Diamonds Remix” featuring Jay-Z before he and Nas patched things up, “We Major” is one of the most memorable Kanye album cuts and poses a new question: why hasn’t Kanye ever produced a full album for Nas? “We Major” contrasts Nas’ precise cool with grandiose yacht horns, a super amped Really Doe, and Kanye’s not yet disgusting sex raps (“Feeling better than getting head on a Sunday afternoon, better than a girl who say ‘yes’ too soon”). “We Major” kept the plate warm between Street’s Disciple and Untitled on an album from the next big superstar in rap. It’s one of the savviest moves in Nas’ career.
“Success,” Jay-Z feat Nas: Prod. by No ID (2007)
(Banned on Youtube)
Like I said when I re-arranged Hip Hop is Dead, Nas got the underwhelming “Black Republican” first for his album, but Jay got the superior “Success” a year later on the American Gangster soundtrack. American Gangster revitalized Jay during his grown and sexy retirement by bringing him back to his roots: rapping great about selling drugs. Nas wisely put No ID’s number in his phone after this record—Dion worked heavily on Nas’ last LP Life is Good. “Success” is one of the last great Jay songs ever made, and Nas sidesteps the “Is hip hop REALLY dead?” talk he ignited the year before by bragging about his numerous flats in other continents. Almost ten years later, Nas still raps this good. Jay does not.
“My President,” Young Jeezy feat Nas: Prod. by Tha Bizness (2008)
“My President” is the first positive song made about an incoming president in the history of rap music.This is the kind of song Nas needed on the dour and joyless Untitled album—charismatic, triumphant, topical, and 1000% more Jeezy adlibs.
“Outro”, Lil Wayne feat Bun B, Shyne, Nas, Busta Rhymes: Prod. by Willy Will (2011)
Aside from the asinine Shyne verse, “Outro” is a rhyming clinic from the Old Head Conglomerate of Nas, Bun B, and Busta. By shouting out Drake to close out his verse, Nas made many a grown man in his 30’s walk into a lake of fire.
“Nasty”: Prod. by Salaam Remi (2011)
“Any rebuttal to what I uttered get boxcuttered
Count how many bad honeys I slut, it’s a high number
Name a n***** under that same sky that I’m under
Who gets money, remain fly, yeah I wonder”
“Nasty” is catnip for all Nas fans from ’91 to present. Salaam Remi makes the grimiest b-boy throwback beats, and then makes “This Girl is on Fire” for Alicia Keys. He also produced “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze and “Fu-Gee-La.” We as hip hop fans have failed to properly celebrate this man.
“Triple Beam Dreams,” Rick Ross feat Nas: Prod. by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League (2012)
What if Nas signed to MMG? Ross is one of the biggest rap nerds around and previously tried to sign Kool G Rap. “Triple Beam Dreams” shows the odd chemistry between a grandiose former corrections officer and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. As you heard on “My President,” Nas flourishes when he’s placed on a contemporary beat alongside a huge personality and the subject matter isn’t about going to the club. It’s a very specific lane of music that has devastatingly high results, so I’m sure Nas’ new album won’t feature anything remotely close to it.
“Let Nas Down,” Remix, J. Cole feat Nas: Prod. by J Cole (2013)
J.Cole’s “Let Nas Down” is an emo cheese sandwich. Instead of whining on wax, Cole could’ve just like, you know, called Nas to hop on this beat from the jump. But because Nas is the greatest ever, he bailed out the fuzzy eyebrowed superfan and wiped off any fingerprints Cole might’ve left on the original version. This is Paying Homage to Nas 101: Fela Kuti horn loop, vocal samples from “Nas is Like,” rhymes referencing Old Earths, Queensbridge, army fatigues, Henneseey, and Slick Rick. Both parties are pandering but goddammit it works. Assholes worship J Cole, but you’d have to be an asshole not to like Nas’ flip of this joint.
“Nas Album Done,” DJ Khaled feat Nas: Prod. by 808 Ray and Cool & Dre (2016)
This is the third song on this list where Nas’ name is in the title. I don’t know what that means but it’s pretty funny for anyone not named Snoop Dogg to pull that off. “Nas Album Done” combines winning elements of “Nas is Back!!!” songs of the past 14 years: Salaam Remi (“Fu-Gee-La” sample) + big personality (DJ Khaled) + references to the past (Tony Montana, Nas Escobar) + references to now (shitting on Trump) + released between albums = major key.