Since releasing his universally acclaimed debut, Illmatic, in 1994, Queensbridge rapper Nas has spent his career at or near the center of hip-hop’s pulse. Nasir Jones, son of Olu Dara, a jazz trumpeter, and Fannie Ann Jones, a postal worker, emerged as a teenage phenom in 1991, performing on the Main Source song “Live at the Barbeque” at the age of 18. Illmatic dropped three years later, reviving a struggling New York City rap scene with an album of jazz-inflected, lyrically dense, back-to-the-source hip-hop. The album didn’t move a ton of units, but it was 10-times platinum in the minds of rap-heads and critics, and it cemented Nas as a legend in the making.

Nas’s follow-up to Illmatic, 1996’s It Was Written, was the first skirmish in what would become the rapper’s long, complicated relationship with listener expectations. Though the album sold far better than its predecessor did and included a significant number of songs in Illmatic’s boom-bap mode, critics and fans scoffed at its R&B-tinged crossover attempts. Nas’s next project, a rap group called The Firm with rappers Foxy Brown and AZ and production by Dr. Dre, failed both commercially and critically.

During the last years of the 1990s, Nas continued to struggle with the competing impulses of street credibility and commercial success, most often splitting the difference with bad beats and misguided lyrical hubris. Albums I Am… and Nastradamus (both released in 1999), though relatively successful commercially, sounded uncomfortable and uninspired. When Jay-Z, who had ascended to the throne of New York rap during Nas’s prodigal roaming, took swipes at Nas in his song “The Takeover,” it seemed like beating a dying horse. But the Jay-Z beef lit a fire under Nas. He retaliated with the blistering takedown track “Ether,” included on his best album in years, 2001’s Stillmatic. After more squabbling in freestyles and radio interviews, Jay and Nas seemed to put the beef on ice, content to let “The Takeover” and “Ether” stand alone as stunning, statuesque punches.


Nas’s renaissance as a wise man of hip-hop, less concerned with guns or bling than he was with issues of identity and history, continued with God’s Son in 2002 and the two-disc Street’s Disciple in 2004. In 2006, after reconciling with Jay-Z and signing with Def Jam, Nas courted controversy once again by releasing Hip Hop Is Dead. But the album itself wasn’t as provocative as its title, as it pursued Nas’s pet issues over a stronger-than-usual arsenal of production. 2009 saw the release of Untitled, an album that was originally titled N*gger and that featured some of Nas’s most focused lyrics on political and social issues yet. ~Wilson McBee

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