1st King Of New York
Nasty Nas was the 1st self-proclaimed King of New York. After Rakim, but before Biggie and Jay Z, there was Nas. An 18 year old cat from Brooklyn, raised and nurtured in the legendary borough of Queens, in the Queensbridge Houses. The Bridge (Queensbridge Projects) is the place where the legendary Marley Marl and Juice Crew came from.
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, son of jazz musician Olu Dara, dropped out of high school in the 8th grade, in order to pursue his education at the school of hard knocks: The Queensbridge Projects. Despite leaving the school system at such an early stage of his life, Nas developed a high degree of literacy and learned about African Culture through the Five Percent Nation, The Bible, The Nuwaubians and the Qur`an. This self education would later transpire in his incredible wordplay and rhymes. The street life and culture would also be reflected in his amazing storytelling talent, whether the narratives took place in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd person. His well crafted “street ebonics” rhetoric is a rare skill in the rap game.
His best friend and neighbor, Willy “Ill Will” Graham, piqued the young Nasir Jones’ interest in Hip Hop by playing him records. As a teenager, Nas went by the name of Kid Wave and the late Ill Will was enlisted as his DJ. He later adopted the street alias of Nasty Nas. In the late 80s, he met up with legendary producer Large Professor and went to record in the same studio where legendary rappers Rakim and Kool G Rap recorded their albums. In 1991, Nas laid down his fiery verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue” and history was made. That verse earned him instant respect and recognition among the whole East Coast rap scene. By mid1992, Mc Serch (3rd Bass), who was the executive producer for the Zebrahead movie soundtrack, approached the young MC and invited him to submit a track for the project. Once he received the song, Serch was so impressed by his skills that he decided to become his manager. Nas released his 1st solo single “Halftime” under the official name of “Nasty Nas”. It was the genesis…
Nas, the poetic sage of the Queensbridge projects, was hailed as the second coming of Rakim. He continually matured as an artist, evolving from an emcee (1994), to a young street disciple (1996), to a vain all knowing sage (1999), to a humble godly teacher (2000) and beyond. Even though the evolution is still ongoing, we will focus on the 1st chapter from Nas’ career, spanning from 1991 to 1999.
Released in 94, Nas’ classic debut album was instantly hailed as a Hip Hop masterpiece by the critics. It was even awarded the highly coveted “5 mics” by The Source magazine (The Hip Hop bible at the time), its highest possible rating. It was a prestigious achievement, given the magazine’s influence in the Hip Hop community.
Though it experienced initial low sales, Illmatic received rave reviews from most music critics upon its release, and earned praises for its rich lyrical content, production and lyricism.
Since its initial reception, the LP has been recognized by writers and music aficionados as a landmark album in the East Coast Hip Hop world. Its influence on subsequent Hip Hop artists has been attributed to the album’s production style and Nas’ incredible wordplay. It also contributed to the revival of the New York City rap scene, introducing a number of stylistic trends to the region. Illmatic still remains one of the most widely celebrated albums in Hip Hop history, appearing on numerous “best album” lists from critics and publications. Its themes are gang rivalries, as well as the desolation and the ravages of urban poverty. Nas (who was 20 when the album was released) focused on depicting his own experiences, creating highly detailed 1st person narratives that deconstruct the troubled life of an inner city teenager.
The classic album had 5 singles: “Halftime” (1st single), “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” (a simply majestic song with a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”), “Life’s A Bitch” (a memorable hook featuring rapper AZ and Nas’ father on the trumpet), “The World Is Yours” (considered by some as one of the greatest Hip Hop songs ever recorded), and “One Love” (a poignant song about street loyalty).
It Was Written (1996)
In 1996, Nas attained commercial success with his 2nd opus It Was Written. The album contained street singles that still retained a pop-friendly appeal. It has been viewed by music writers as one of his best works and remains his best-selling release, with over 4 million copies sold in the United States alone.
The album is an evolution from the raw, underground tone of its predecessor, to a more polished, mainstream sound. The album features mafioso and gangster themes, and marks the first appearance of Nas’ short lived supergroup The Firm, comprised of Foxy Brown, AZ, Nature and Cormega.
The album spawned 3 singles: “If I Ruled the World (Imagine that)” with the great Lauryn Hill, “Street Dreams” (contains an interpolation from the Eurythmics hit song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This”), “The Message” (“There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one king”, the song that sparked a feud with The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac).
The Firm: The Album (1997)
It is the only studio album by the American Hip Hop supergroup The Firm. The group consisted of the hottest New York MCs: Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ and Nature. Not much is to be said about the project. It was a very disappointing project overall. It only had 2 major songs: “Phone Tap” and “I’m Leaving”.
It had 2 singles: “Firm Biz” (not much to say about the main single), “Phone Tap” (a dope song featuring an excellent sample of Chris Barber Jazz Band’s Jazz “Petite Fleur”).
I Am… (1999)
The 3rd album, I Am…The Autobiography, was referred to by Nas’ critics as an attempt to further his commercial success. It came with its share of controversies. The 2nd single, “Hate Me Now”, featured Nas and Sean “Puffy” Combs being crucified in a manner similar to Jesus.
The album also contained the song “We Will Survive”, a tribute to Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. The song criticized his peers, most notably Jay Z, who claimed to be “The King of New York” following B.I.G.’s death. The record has been cited as potentially encouraging the feud between Nas and Jay Z.
Only 2 singles emanated from this album: “Nas Is Like” (DJ Premier and Nas combination = pure bragging rights over a dope beat); “Hate Me Now” (Nas and Puffy = controversy + going in on all haters).
The 5th album was not well received at all. It has been regarded as Nas’ weakest effort. The title of the album is inspired by the name of the famous French apothecary Nostradamus.
Nastradamus had only 2 singles: “Nastradamus” (the song sparked the beef with Memphis Bleek who would eventually involve Jay Z). The song also used a sample from “(It’s Not The Express) It’s The J.B.’S Monorail”, recorded by the band The J.B.’S and
“You Owe Me” (a player song about requesting sex from girls for buying them jewelry).
After 5 albums, fans and critics started to fear that Nas’ career was declining, artistically and commercially, as both I Am… and Nastradamus were heavily criticised for being inconsistent.
Nas explained the meaning behind his 4 solo album covers and how it evolved from Illmatic to Nastradamus. On the first one, you see him as a very young boy. On the second one he’s a little older, a teenager. On the third one, he is a king that has already conquered the world (a King Tut sarcophagus piece represents this). On the final one, he was a prophetic sage.
Time is Ill Matic…