Deep Album Cuts Vol. 74: Nas

Nas has an interesting legacy. It's not controversial to propose him as perhaps the greatest MC of all time, or that Illmatic is hip hop's greatest album, but it'd be hard to make the case for him having the best overall catalog or career. And it was often his biggest singles from the multiplatinum albums of his glitzy Nas Escobar era that made him into a huge mainstream star that dented his rep. And while every album he releases gets pushback simply for not being Illmatic, he's retained and refined a lot of the skill that made him special to begin with, and we still get periodic reminders like DJ Khaled's recent "Nas Album Done," which was a warning shot from the 11th solo album we'll hopefully be hearing soon. So in the mean time, here's a look back at the 10 previous albums, flawed but often great as they are.

Nas Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. One Time 4 Your Mind
2. Life's A Bitch featuring AZ and Olu Dara
3. Represent
4. N.Y. State Of Mind
5. Take It In Blood
6. I Gave You Power
7. Affirmative Action featuring Cormega, AZ and Foxy Brown
8. Favor For A Favor featuring Scarface
9. We Will Survive
10. Project Windows featuring Ronald Isley
11. You're Da Man
12. Rewind
13. Revolutionary Warfare featuring Lake
14. Last Real N**** Alive
15. Warrior Song featuring Alicia Keys
16. Disciple
17. Getting Married
18. Let There Be Light featuring Tre Williams
19. Queens Get The Money
20. A Queens Story

Tracks 1, 2, 3 and 4 from Illmatic (1994)
Tracks 5, 6 and 7 from It Was Written (1996)
Tracks 8 and 9 from I Am... (1999)
Track 10 from Nastradamus (1999)
Tracks 11 and 12 from Stillmatic (2001)
Tracks 13, 14 and 15 from God's Son (2002)
Tracks 16 and 17 from Street's Disciple (2004)
Track 18 from Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)
Track 19 from Untitled (2008)
Track 20 from Life Is Good (2012)

I took a long time coming around to Nas. I was 12 when Illmatic came out and it never showed up on my limited radar of whatever rap videos were played on MTV Jams or The Box. So he seemed to kind of pop out of nowhere with It Was Written debuting at #1 on the charts, but even then he struck me as one of the least interesting mainstream rap figures of the era, and even if I could tell that he was talented all the glitzy Nas Escobar era singles turned me off.

I was always a pretty big Jay-Z fan, and my sophomore year (2001/2002) college roommate preferred Nas, so we really got into the spirit of the whole beef and argued about it, even though I did enjoy some of the songs he'd play off Stillmatic, and by the next year I was catching up on Illmatic and the other early albums and really liking God's Son, which is still one of my favorite later Nas albums. People still argue about the beef 15 years later and who had the better record, but I think it's telling that "Takeover" has done way more to inform criticisms of Nas than "Ether" has informed criticisms of Jay, particularly his lack of consistency in the years following Illmatic.

I do think it's interesting, though, that Jay got in a good jab at Nas's contradictory impulses of style vs. substance in 2002 ("Is it 'Oochie Wally Wally' or is it 'One Mic'? Is it 'Black Girl Lost' or shorty owe you for ice?"). But a mere year later, Jay had begun his transparent pivot into a conflicted would-be conscious rapper, the "Che Guevara with bling on" who wanted to rhyme like Common. But the fact is, Kanye and that era of Jay helped us get to the fairly "woke" state of mainstream rap that we're into today, but there were a few years when Nas was out there risking his sales to talk about some shit that was considered deeply unfashionable, and I don't feel like he gets much credit for that now. It's interesting to think how some of his records would've been received if they came out today. Untitled wouldn't be called Untitled.

The fact is, Nas will never make an album as good as Illmatic, but I don't think he's ever really made a bad one. He's kind of the king of 3 1/2 star albums that have a couple of ill-conceived tracks like "Dr. Knockboot" or "Zone Out" holding things back. Even when he did take a pretty awful deep cut, "Braveheart Party," off of later pressings of Stillmatic, it wasn't enough to make it a masterpiece. I have a soft spot for one of his least revered albums, Street's Disciple, which in typical messy double album fashion could be boiled down to a pretty potent single disc. I played "Getting Married" at my wedding reception!

One of the popular knocks against later Nas is that he has a bad ear for beats, but I think that's been a bit blown out of proportion. The Trackmasters era has aged badly, but guys like Salaam Remi and L.E.S. did great work on his mid-period albums, and people have mostly ignored that just to complain that he hasn't done as much with DJ Premier. But really I found myself more intrigued by Nas's instincts as a lyricist -- the same conceptual ambition that gave us songs like "I Gave You Power" and "Rewind" also gave us cringe-inducing songs like "Who Killed It?" and "The Makings Of A Perfect Bitch." But I'm glad he's had the freedom to indulge all of his best and worst ideas and let it all shake out. He's Nas, we can make jokes but he'll always be one of the greats.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige
Vol. 30: The Black Crowes
Vol. 31: Ne-Yo
Vol. 32: Blink-182
Vol. 33: One Direction
Vol. 34: Kelly Clarkson
Vol. 35: The B-52's
Vol. 36: Ludacris
Vol. 37: They Might Be Giants
Vol. 38: T-Pain
Vol. 39: Snoop Dogg
Vol. 40: Ciara
Vol. 41: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Vol. 42: Dwight Yoakam
Vol. 43: Demi Lovato
Vol. 44: Prince
Vol. 45: Duran Duran
Vol. 46: Rihanna
Vol. 47: Janet Jackson
Vol. 48: Sara Bareilles
Vol. 49: Motley Crue
Vol. 50: The Who
Vol. 51: Coldplay
Vol. 52: Alicia Keys
Vol. 53: Stone Temple Pilots
Vol. 54: David Bowie
Vol. 55: The Eagles
Vol. 56: The Beatles
Vol. 57: Beyonce
Vol. 58: Beanie Sigel
Vol. 59: A Tribe Called Quest
Vol. 60: Cheap Trick
Vol. 61: Guns N' Roses
Vol. 62: The Posies
Vol. 63: The Time
Vol. 64: Gucci Mane
Vol. 65: Violent Femmes
Vol. 66: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Vol. 67: Maxwell
Vol. 68: Parliament-Funkadelic
Vol. 69: Chevelle
Vol. 70: Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio
Vol. 71: Fantasia
Vol. 72: Heart
Vol. 73: Pitbull
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