That pigeon knows what’s up. Stillmatic (2001).

“I embrace ya’ll with napalm”: Stillmatic at 20

Widely regarded as one of the best to ever do it, Nas built the foundation of his enduring legacy early in his career. In 1994, he created an all-time classic hip-hop album with his debut, Illmatic. On it, with his words, Nas painted vivid pictures of New York streets and the Queensbridge projects. You could smell the staircase piss, weed, and gun smoke when you listened to Illmatic, an album so highly revered and respected even beyond the hip-hop community that it was recently entered into the Library of Congress, enshrined and preserved until the end of time for fans to appreciate and corny ass rappers to take in and recognize what actual skills on the mic sound like. Illmatic helped kick start the East Coast Rap Renaissance of the 1990s, along with some other monumental albums from NYC heavyweights (literal and figurative).

The bloom was still on the rose when Nas circled back to the booth and dropped his sophomore album, It Was Written. This album was a departure from the grimey street cinematography that Nas presented on Illmatic. In its place, Nas chose to create a concept album starring “Nasty” Nas, the drug kingpin and made man. On It Was Written, Nas was Tony Montana after the takeover. The lyrical content and production were crafted to meet that vision, and It Was Written ended up being a banger follow up to his Illmatic masterpiece. The rap game appeared to belong to Nas. “If I Ruled the World”, the flagship single from It Was Written and crossover hit with Lauryn Hill, put him on mainstream radio and brought commercial success. This was all part of Nas’s plan. Sure, Illmatic was a critical success, but it didn’t give him the shine that he wanted. He wanted to achieve a new level of success with It Was Written; the kind that gets you a starring role in a major Hollywood gangster flick. he did. By 1999, though, the bloom on the rose had withered.

Nasty Nas came out to play on Stillmatic (2001).

I Am …The Autobiography, Nas’s third album, dropped in April of that year, and what was originally planned as a double album became two single albums after tracks were leaked on the internet. The final result is a mixed bag of songs that sound and feel like they were thrown together in order to make a deadline, which is exactly what happened. Because of the leaked tracks, Nas decided to record new material. It’s an admirable move, a last-second audible that only those supremely confident in their abilities can attempt let alone pull off. Nas is of the ilk, but he couldn’t conjure the same magic he did with his two previous albums. It could be that the original material Nas recorded for the I Am… double album was some of the greatest shit we’ve never heard. The concept he was going with, having each track of the album serve as a chapter in his life, to merge styles from Illmatic and It Was Written, was dope. Unfortunately, that music was pirated, and we got the sloppy seconds. The highly anticipated I Am… was a disappointment, and the forgettable Nastradamus was a joke. Folks whispered that maybe Nas was washed. So much potential, but merely a spark and fizzle instead of a blaze.

Where I Am… and Nastradamus failed, Stillmatic shined. Nas was laser focused on what felt like a comeback album at the tail end of NYC’s reign over hip-hop. On the strength of “Ether” alone, Nas’s fourth album showed that he still had the fire to lyrically tear opponents apart, but Stillmatic is more than just the Nas album with the diss track. It’s loaded with dope tracks, like: “Got Ur Self a Gun”, with the Sopranos sample, is a head-bobbing declaration of the return of the many “forms of Nas” (Nasir, Escobar, the Prince, the boss); “You’re da Man”, a deep cut where the rapper reflects on the dream he had of becoming famous and what it took for him to achieve it. It’s not what you think according to the “uncut version” that’s on YouTube. This song has regret and hope tucked into the slick raps that Nas spits about his journey; “Rewind”, a creative attempt to retell a story, but Memento style; “One Mic”, the rundown of what Nas desires and the obstacles that prevent him from obtaining those things; “2nd Childhood”, his ode to youth laced by DJ Premier; “The Flyest”, yet another slick banger with rhyming partner, AZ; and “What Goes Around”, a socially conscious track about the “poisons” in our society (literal poison, like drugs, and figurative poison, like the education system and white Jesus).

On Stillmatic Nas is pushing 30, with a much different perspective on life and approach to art than he had a decade earlier when he made Illmatic. Respect is due to the God MCs, like Nas, who made it to middle age, accomplishing exactly what they set out to do from the jump. Who doesn’t love a success story? His music, especially his last two albums, the pair of King’s Disease releases, have improved upon the style into which Nas eventually settled when he made Stillmatic, a mix of Illmatic and It Was Written, Nasir and Esco, the yin and yang of Nasty Nas.

Standout Tracks

A solid album, with a couple of filler tracks, Stillmatic was a true return to form on both sides of the booth for Nas. I love “One Mic” and “2nd Childhood”, but they didn’t make my 3-track cut of “standouts”.

“Ether”

Duh. What? Surprised? It’s one of the best diss tracks on record, the fatal blow in a battle between two top MC’s of all-time when they were still in their prime. It’s “Ali vs. Frazier”. You knew it was going to be on this list. It hurt Jay’s feelings so badly that Hova had to made another diss track and attack Nas’s then girlfriend and his daughter, and his mom made him squash the beef because he went too far.

“You’re da Man”

Sick beat. Nas could have been wrapping about baking brownies, and it would’ve been a banger, but he was telling us about all the foul shit he had to do just to make his dream come true. It’s brutally honest, and it might be more than most rational people are willing to do, but we don’t want our artists to be rational.

“The Flyest (feat. AZ)”

Why didn’t these two dudes make an album together? The Firm doesn’t count. These dudes had tremendous chemistry, like Ghost and Rae, Meth and Red, Riggs and Murtaugh, and the production is butter smooth to match their delivery.

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