There are only a handful of emcees who have a strong case in the GOAT conversation. Queens legend Nas is undoubtedly one of them—just ask his peers. The skillful lyricist was named as one of the greats on songs in three separate decades: JAY-Z’s “Where I’m From” (1997), Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” (2002), and Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” (2013). With thought-provoking words, precise storytelling and a surgical pen, perhaps Nas’ only weakness has been his beat selection. This is precisely why the entire hip-hop world’s ears perked up when we learned his follow-up to 2012’s Life is Good would be executive-produced by Kanye West. Escobar season has arrived. Let’s see where Nasir ranks among the top albums in his legendary catalog.
10 | Street’s Disciple
Many of hip-hop’s legends—such as 2Pac, Biggie, and JAY-Z—have taken a stab at proving their dominance by releasing a double album. Street’s Disciple is more about expanding Nas’ sound and diving deeper into his subject matter than solidifying his reign. We hear Nas discuss everything from terminal illness to religion to self-image. Esco pays homage to rap’s forefathers and also extends his arm to the future.
9 | God’s Son
An album named after the tattoo across his stomach, this project was Nas at his most thoughtful and reflective. Though many of these tracks are forgettable, the strongest ones feature some of Escobar’s best work. “Heaven” offers a nuanced critique of society and explores how our actions would change if “heaven was a mile away.” “I Can” is an empowering anthem for young people that traces the African Diaspora back to its roots—reimagining modern black royalty. “Last Real N*gga Alive” recounts the lessons learned from Nas’s legendary feud with JAY-Z.
8 | It Was Written
In the latter half of the 90s, Nas was largely a victim of his own success. His bulletproof debut album Illmatic set the bar too high for anyone to be satisfied with anything less than a masterpiece thereafter. Though it is far from flawless, It Was Written stands as the most underrated album in his catalog. On the innovative track “I Gave You Power,” Nas takes the perspective of a gun to speak about street violence. On this funky, smooth album, we learned that this artist would continue to hone his conceptual songmaking—even when the production failed to keep pace.
7 | [Untitled] / Nas
Fitting for the title, this is Nas’ most militant and unapologetically-black body of work in his catalog. The album explores nearly every aspect of blackness, ranging from the slave mentality (“Slave and The Master”) to politics around the N-word (“Y’all My Niggas”) to fear of black resistance (“Untitled”). True to Nas’ persona, this socially-conscious album predated the black pride movement that has taken over social media.
6 | The Lost Tapes
Kendrick Lamar isn’t the only emcee whose throwaways are better than most rappers’ best work. Originally the B-Side to _I Am…-, The Lost Tapes contained immaculate flows, impressive wordplay and pointed storytelling. One of its standouts, “Drunk Alone,” runs through the mind of someone wrestling alcoholism and depression. If this album’s gems never saw the light of day, it would have been a damn shame.
5 | Hip Hop is Dead
It seems as though Nas put this album together to disprove the title and encourage other skilled emcees to do the same. One of the main highlights was when he and JAY-Z traded verses on “Black Republicans,” proving to the rap world that their feud was finally over. That bitter rivals such as these could come together for the sake of reviving hip-hop proves how powerful and vital the culture is.
4 | Nasir
As expected, Nas’ newest release was his most well-produced album. The hypnotic beat on “Cops Shot the Kid” and expert use of Auto-Tune on “Everything” are signature Kanye staples that give the Queensbridge native’s sound a refreshing twist. Though this album isn’t built upon an intricate concept like many of his past works, the politically-charged Nasir is the tightest, most succinct Nas album since Illmatic.
3 | Life is Good
This self-defining work saw Nas return to form, now a seasoned veteran with new experiences as a father and coming into his own as a mogul. Songs such as “Daughters” brought us into the psyche of a self-proclaimed player who now had a baby girl of his own. The Amy Winehouse-assisted “Cherry Wine” experimented with a much silkier, soulful sound and explored his nasty divorce from singer Kelis. The result was Nas’ best album in a decade.
2 | Stillmatic
Conflict and animosity loomed over Tupac Shakur’s 7 Day Theory, showing us a side of the rapper many fans did not know existed. Stillmatic is similar for Nas. After JAY-Z dissed him at Summer Jam, and again eventually on a blistering verse on “Takeover,” virtually everyone counted Escobar out. Fortunately, he had other plans. The deliciously disrespectful “Ether” aired out Hov, producing one of the best diss records ever made. This track was so devastating that “ether” was used as a verb for destroying someone’s character soon after. The self-assuredness in the intro track, the reverse storytelling of “Rewind,” and slow charge-up of “One Mic” rounded Stillmatic out as a classic hip-hop album.
1 | Illmatic
This masterpiece speaks for itself. There’s a reason Nas’ debut album lands at the top of most lists of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. If you could record the sights, sounds, and smells of New York City on wax, it would certainly be Illmatic. Classic records such as the lyrically-dense “NY State of Mind” and “The World Is Yours” are right at home next to the Gap Band-sampled “Life’s a Bitch” and the letter to prison “One Love.” At the early age of 19, when most people are still finding themselves, Nas released the greatest hip-hop album ever made.
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