The hip-hop community knew Nas would be a problem after his performance on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ.” He was 17 when he spit the first verse on that record.
He has since solidified himself as one of the most detailed, evocative and generally talented writers in in the genre. In all of music even.
Nas’s conversational flow rides the general rhythm of a song rather than the snares, a common technique by today’s standards. Prior to Nas though, this style of rap was uncommon at best.
The typical Nas bar has more syllables than two bars from any two rappers, probably combined. Nas himself admits he struggled during his earlier performances. His raps were so full that he often lost breath.
Technique aside, Nas’s ability to weave a cohesive narrative through his lyrics is largely unrivaled. Many of Nas’s stories don’t extend past a verse or so, like “Get Down.” Other songs like “Daughters” follow a concept through a song, but with several supporting anecdotes throughout.
Illmatic is one of the crowning jewels of rap music and hip-hop culture at large. Arguably Nas’s best work and easily among the best albums in rap’s canon, Illmatic is the ultimate testament to Nas’s skill as an emcee. Nas would likely get a nod as a Game Changer on the strength of this LP alone as the album fundamentally changed the rap genre and influenced practically every rapper after 1995, including the artists covered in these Game Changer features.
As one of the premier hardcore hip-hop records of the decade, Illmatic’s production and lyrics spoke directly to the estranged ghettos of New York (and the country by extension) in a way few albums did or have since.
Illmatic has become something of a crucible against which fans and artists alike measure the ability of prospect “lyricists.” Not a surprising thing considering Nas’s lyrical display on “NY State of Mind.”
Illmatic is one of the few true rap classics.
In the years preceding “Ether,” Nas was simultaneously experiencing a commercial high with the releases of I am … and Nastradamus, and a critical low due to said records. There was a general consensus that Nas was going more pop and many felt his music was suffering. Several of Nas’s rivals also took this time to call the emcee out, chief among them was Jay-Z.
Nas responded to Jay-Z’s “Takeover” with the now famous “Ether.”
Even today, “Ether” is one of the most abrasive, direct and… disrespectful dis tracks out there. The record’s popularity eventually led to the coining of ether as a verb in the hip-hop community.
“Ether” almost singlehandedly propelled Nas back into critic’s good graces after appearing on Stillmatic, though the album also featured “One Mic” and “Got yourself A.”
Hip-hop is Dead
Three of the most controversial words spoken in all of rap music’s short history.
For years the sentiment that hip-hop was dead lay thick in the minds of rap fans and artists alike. Nas’s introspective critique of the genre sparked a national debate that, in many ways, continues today.
Southern crunk and snap dominated the rap scene for much of the mid to late 2000s’. This was perfect for clubs and parties, but the heads at home were often left wanting by the repetitive production and dominating hooks.
Nas was not the first to call out the genre and the fans for allowing the music to sour. However, his status in the industry led to something of a panic as heads around the nation debated and pointed fingers at whoever may have killed hip-hop.
The influence of this statement is perhaps most felt in the changes we’ve seen in rap over the last three years or so. Many critics claim rap is experiencing something of a renaissance, another Golden Age. This is the result of hundreds of artists working to push hip-hop’s boundaries and revitalize the genre. Hip-hop is Dead was very likely the catalyst for the current state of progression in the music.
Nas is one of the few rappers nearly 20 years in the game that still writes like they’re brand new.
He’s demonstrated throughout his long career that he is among the most lyrical rappers to ever grace a stage and influenced a great majority of today’s most popular acts to pick up a pen. J. Cole even dedicated a song to him on his latest album Born Sinner, to which Nas later added his own verse.
Since Illmatic, Nas is rarely off the charts, making him one of the most commercially successful artists in the genre as well as one of the most critically acclaimed. He’s critiqued the industry as a whole, politics, race, poverty, and himself in nearly equal amounts throughout his career.
Most people have a top 10 or top 20, or even top 50 best rappers ever list. Check any forum, talk to any rap fan, Nas is very often among their top 5 best rappers of all time.
Does that grant him the coveted title G.O.A.T.? Probably yes for many fans. For many more, Nas is simply a legendary emcee and there isn’t much else to it than that.