An Ode to (my Life with) Nas
As a teenager, my greatest joy in life was to get high and watch Rap City on BET. Although I grew up in Cali, the sounds coming out of New York in the late 90s resonated with me and I quickly become a connoisseur of acts like Lost Boyz, MC Lyte, Redman, Salt-N-Pepa and Wu-Tang Clan…And then came Nas.
Nothing at the time compared to how I felt the first time I heard Nas’ first album, Illmatic. To this day, listening to “Memory Lane” instantly alters my mood. The magic between him and DJ Premier was and still is undeniable. Listening to that record in its entirety is like visiting with an old friend. It feels as good to me now as it did when I was a teenager. When his second album, It was Written was Released, I played it on the old boombox in my room until the tape slowed down. The album was my gateway to discovering featured artists Foxy Brown and Mobb Deep and I got more lost in their world as Nas’ storytelling was growing even more vivid.
My first boyfriend was a rapper and Nas’ third album, I am… was released during the height of our romance. We spent hours trying to impress each other by dissecting his relationship with Biggie and Tupac as we listened to “We Will Survive.” This wasn’t the last time Nas would provide the soundtrack to my foreplay with a love interest. Years later I dated a DJ who won me over instantly by scratching “The Don” into her set as soon as I walked into the room. For these memories alone, Nas holds an even larger piece of my heart.
Although “Nas is Like” remains one of my favorite songs of all time and “N.Y. State of Mind, Pt. II” was another magic moment between him and Premo, I Am… in its entirety hasn’t aged all that well (try listening to “Ghetto Prisoners” or “Money is my Bitch” today without cringing.) His next release was arguably his lowest point, professionally. He lost a lot of fans when he released Nastradamus and that Godawful low budget video for the title track. I was mostly just disappointed because I knew he could do better.
In college, I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music and that year he came back with something inspired: his 5th studio album, Stillmatic. After Nastradamus and with his very public beef with Jay-Z intensifying, he had a lot to prove, and he did. Being a young songwriting major, I studied the lyrics on his newest album diligently and played it to death on my trips between Boston, New York and D.C. Although Stillmatic as a whole hasn’t stood the test of time the way his classic Illmatic has, it was the Nas comeback I had been waiting for. “Ether” was one of the greatest battle tracks of all time and “One Mic” was nothing short of songwriting mastery.
Back in 2001, the beef between Nas and Jay Z was what every hip-hop head on the East Coast was talking about (you already know which team I was on.) I had been a fan of Jay Z since I heard his Nas-sampled single, “Dead Presidents” (sorry, I had to say it!) I had no problem with Jay but I argued that although the quality of Nas’ work was less consistent and commercially successful, his peaks were much higher than any of his contemporaries, period. I loved Nas for being a risk taker and although he didn’t always hit the mark, when he did he was brilliant.
His next album, The Lost Tapes was my favorite since It was Written. The project was an assortment of verses and tracks that had previously been left of the cutting room floor during his time of recording I Am… and Stillmatic. Although this type of project isn’t unheard of in hip-hop, it’s rare to see if from an artist who is still alive. Unlike posthumous compilations from artists like Tupac and Biggie, The Lost Tapes tracks were handpicked by the artist himself.
I found it particularly refreshing that because The Lost Tapes didn’t contain any bells and whistles or trendy features, Nas was able to shine and focus on what he does best: lyricism. This is one of the greatest songwriters of the genre, after all. He doesn’t need a hook from Ginuwine or distorted vocals from P. Diddy to make a good song. In fact, he does much better without them.
The intro piano line from the album’s opener, “Doo Rags” still gives me chills every time. His storytelling is so vivid here that I can literally see the song as much as I can hear it. “Black Zombie,” a lament about people’s complacency to black stereotypes in the United States haunted me with the opening lines, “Yo, you believe when they say we ain’t shit, we can’t grow? All we are is dope dealers, and gangstas and hoes?” (Those words directly inspired one of my original songs about the female experience that ended up on my debut album eight years later. For my song, “Wrong Direction” I called upon my friend Has-Lo, arguably as big a Nas fan as I am, to produce it.)
I’ll be the first to admit that after God’s Son I lost a little of my passion for Nas. I never stopped listening to him but aside from using “Virgo” (from Street’s Disciple) as my ringtone and going to see his Distant Relatives tour with Damian Marley on a beautiful summer day in Brooklyn, his newer releases just didn’t light my fire the way they used to. I was now living in New York City and completely immersed in the hip-hop culture I had studied from afar as a teenager. It was all so creatively inspiring that it overshadowed Nas’ current mediocrity. As much as I hate to say it, his creative stretch between Street’s Disciple and Hip Hop is Dead just wasn’t that dope…
Although I had a blast covering “Made You Look” on my first few tours as an indie artist, it took awhile for me to fall back in love with Nas. The love came back tenfold in the form of a 650-mile solo drive I had to do in one day after a 2 week tour back in 2012. As taxing as that sounds, the idea to listen to Nas’ entire discography is what got me through the drive. Once again, I was visiting with an old friend and feeling the nostalgia from my first love to my first album all the way to my current life as a touring artist.
Almost like clockwork, the week after my drive with Nas, I heard “The Don’ for the first time and it became an instant favorite. It was the first single from his eleventh studio album, Life is Good. Aside from more cringe-worthy tracks like “Summer on Smash,” Life is Good once again proved that Nas wasn’t done winning me back over. He had come back with a more mature sound while still staying true to his laser-sharp lyricism and intimate peek into his more reflective side with tracks like “Bye Baby.”
I’m not sure what’s next for my favorite MC but whether the next effort is genius or abysmal, I will still be the first one checking for it. He has been my muse, companion and motivator for years now and I wouldn’t be the artist I am without his influence.
…But as long as I live, I will never ever voluntarily listen to “Oochie Wally.”
Check out all my favorite Nas cuts on this curated Playlist: