The Agony and Ecstasy Of Loving Nas

Be sure to subscribe to our playlist, The 40 Best Nas Tracks Not on Illmatic, right here.

Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic is not only considered his best album, but is regarded as the best hip-hop album ever, full stop. And with good reason: that album revolutionized the genre. Nas captured the ruinous glory of post-crack N.Y.C.. By suggesting that drugs were both empowering and destructive, his lyrics alternately embraced and rejected the idea of ghetto glamour, etching out bits of hard-won wisdom amongst Nas’ piercing observational storytelling. His word-drunk, casual cadences redefined how emcees could rap. And this was all done over peak boom bap production from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip, among others.

But, at this point, it’s boring to talk about Illmatic, or to say that Nas lives it its shadow. It’s a boilerplate narrative, and a lazy, rote mythologization. To be honest, many of the ideas and even a few of the observations I made in the first paragraph were recycled from the various times in my career when I’ve been tasked with paying homage to that particular lodestar. But what happened after Illmatic, and the various ways that his fans and critics have reacted to that output, is a lot more interesting.

In the ensuing years (and decades), Nas continued to evolve and experiment, cycling through different personas and tackling difficult concepts, both personal and political. He wasn’t always successful; there are peaks and valleys, and he failed as often as he succeeded. At times, his work has been baffling and self-annihilating, full of contradictions and strange discursions. For every blazingly brilliant observational detail, there’s a weird sex rap or a confounding historical inaccuracy. And Nas, himself, is frequently unlovable. He’s aloof and enigmatic. He’s flirted with messianic imagery and has been accused of abusing his ex-wife. Sometimes it seemed that his fans — and I count myself among them — spent as much time apologizing for him as listening to his music.

But, the truth is, we’ve hung on. We’ve bought into the idea of his brilliance; we’ve subscribed to his narrative. Sure, it’s a messy and uneven journey, and it’s frequently hard to stomach him, much less listen to his music, but, in a way, that makes him feel more human. He’s not a face on Mt. Rushmore, and he doesn’t carry the extra-human weight of aDylan or B.I.G., but his flaws ground him, and bring his flashes of otherworldly brilliance into stark relief.

There has effectively been five distinct Nas periods. The first is Illmatic, which is a deeply autobiographical work that captures key parts of Nas’ childhood. By the time that he re-entered the studio to record 1996’s It Was Written, he had largely abandoned this direct approach. Taking a cue from Raekwon and Ghostface — who had, the year before, released Only Built for Cuban Linx  — Nas took on the persona of drug lord Nas Escobar. His cadences seem were more calculated and precise, alternately more accomplished and less poetic, and though some of the imagery from that album was still culled from Nas’ childhood in the Queensbridge projects, tracks such as “Live Nigga Rap” and “Street Dreams” were conscious fictions — Miami-sized coke rap fantasies that were cinematic in scope. He would continue mining this persona over his next two albums, Nastradamus and I Am.

The artistic failure of those two albums has been widely overstated — it’s hard to entirely dismiss albums that produced tracks like “Project Windows,” “Nas is Like,” and “NY State of Mind, Pt. II” — but by the turn of the millennium, there was little doubt that the Nas’ Escobar persona had run out of steam, so Nas switched it up, beginning with 2001’s comeback album Stillmatic and continuing with 2002’s mid-period high-water-mark God’s Son. His narrative strategy here was more straightforward and reflective, which many took to be a return to the autobiographical raps of Illmatic, but tracks like “Get Down” and “2nd Childhood” were older, wiser, and less nihilistic. They were the stories of a survivor, and not a soldier. And though the role of the “street prophet” was always part of Nas’ persona — see “Black Girl Lost” from It Was Written — this period also saw him increasingly turning to socio-political themes. It felt that Nas had reclaimed his glory, and, for at least a minute, his fans reemerged from their closets and re-appointed Nas as the GOAT.

This particular stylistic era reached a climax on 2004’s Street’s Disciple. There were moments of greatness on that album, but it was a messy, sprawling double album, and was a relative commercial disappointment. When, in a 2011 interview between Nas and Tyler, The Creator for XXL magazine, the Odd Future frontman admitted that Street’s Disciple was his favorite album, Nas seemed shocked. But Tyler’s reaction is understandable. The album contains some genuinely brilliant material, and the fact that it’s been overlooked makes it seem more personal to his fans. It’s something that we, and we alone, own.   

Still, the lukewarm reception caused Nas to recalibrate. To put it bluntly, Nas was aging. He was a wealthy, veteran rapper who, at that point, was over 10 years removed from the street life and struggling to adopt a credible public persona. In lieu of this, he withdrew himself from his music, and released a string of high-concept albums that were oriented around a series of thematic conceits. Hip-Hop Is Dead, from 2006, looked at the supposed-demise of hip-hop. It was a moody album that mourned the genre’s childhood innocence and the inondation of commercialism. It was by no means brilliant, and I can’t imagine anyone putting it in their top 3 Nas albums, but its melancholy made it compelling.

The follow-up, 2008’s Untitled, looked at race relations in America. The album was originally called Nigger, which, as you can imagine, garnered a sharply mixed response. Nas was still considered a commercial and cultural force, and the title drew criticism from camps as disparate as Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly. Eventually, Nas conceded to the pressure, and named it simply Untitled.  

Putting the controversy aside, it wasn’t a particularly great album, but there are some crucial tracks, including the spare lyrical workout “Queens Get the Money,” and the crunchy, aggressive “Money Over Bullshit.” But it’s legacy was tainted by allegations that Jay Electronica had ghostwritten some of the tracks. Though never proven, it put Nas fans in a familiar space, making excuses and equivocating.

Regardless of the album’s authorship, at this point, in his career and in his life, it’s fair to say that Nas had lost his narrative. He was no longer at forefront of hip-hop, either culturally or commercially, and his marriage to R&B singer Kelis had produced a child but ended in a divorce (years later, Kelis would claim that Nas had abused her; and regardless of whether or not that is true, at the very least, it pointed towards a tumultuous relationship). He did what many of us would in his situation: he took some time off.

2012’s comeback album Life is Good was Nas’ most personal work to date, and one of his most compelling. It’s a deeply ambiguous work — the cover finds him clutching Kelis’ wedding dress, and the entire album is coated in ennuie and disappointment. The opening track, “No Introduction,” is a biography-in-miniature and directly tackles the dissolution of his marriage. Over a lush production from Miami production unit (and frequent Rick Ross collaborators) J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, the song begins with Nas embarrassed, standing in line for a free lunch at elementary school, and ends with the admission that he’s aging and seeking an ever-elusive closure. This sense of melancholy is present throughout that album. The track “Bye Baby” tackles his divorce head-on, while “A Queens Story” traces the arcs of his friendships, and ends with the starkly ambivalent image of Nas the “only black in a club of rich yuppie kids,” getting hammered as he recalls the images of his dead friends.

Life is Good would’ve made an appropriate swan song, and he could’ve rode out in the sunset at this point with his legacy intact, but, of course, this didn’t happen, and the follow up, 2018’s Nasir, felt like a retreat of sorts. It was billed as a collaborative album with Kanye West, which seems like every hip-hop fans wet dream (at least in 2005). And while there are certainly flashes of greatness (most notably on “Adam and Eve,” where Nas wrestles with his legacy, both to his public and his children), the emcee sounds strangely detached. He’s abandoned his narrative raps, and his ability to twist the details of his life into poetic imagery fail him. “Not for Radio” more-or-less recycles the vibe and themes of “N.I.*.*.E.R” from Untitled wholesale, except with much-diminished returns, while the seven-minute-long “everything” feels maudlin, and strangely anchors itself around an anti-vaccination rant.

But most of all, it’s what’s missing that’s important. Considering that Nas has always been such an honest and forthcoming emcee, it’s odd that he didn’t address Kelis’ allegations of domestic abuse. Nas is far from the only pop culture figure to suffer from such allegations, and there has been no supporting evidence, but his silence reads as guilt. Nas fans have defended him many times over the years for a variety of transgressions, but this is probably the most troubling.

But, like I said in the beginning, it’s not easy being a Nas fan. At times, he seems god-like and invisible, while at others, he’s impossibly bitter and even loathsome. But you take the good with the bad, and hope the former outweighs the latter, as it frequently does. If he would’ve ended his career after It Was Written, he would’ve left the hip-hop with two concise, blazingly brilliant albums, and would’ve been talked about in the same breath as Biggie or Pac, but his subsequent material has revealed him as being merely human, but, in the end, we’re still here, for better and worse.