In more than 20 years, Nas has crafted one of the most celebrated discographies in the culture of Hip Hop. Recently, the rapper spoke to Rolling Stone about this longevity and the impact of 20 songs from his catalog.
"Nas walked us through his thought process and state of mind behind 20 of his most introspective songs," Rolling Stone says of the 20 songs on the list. "Some are classics. Some never got their due. But all show a 'graphic classic song composer' laying bare insecurities, victories, fears and triumphs."
One of the tracks on the list is "Live at the Barbeque" off Main Source's 1991 album Breaking Atoms. "I specifically meant for that verse to spark my whole existence in Rap music, so I approached it that way," Nas says. "I felt like, 'This is it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so I went for it." I had the feeling in my head, so I wrote it right there on the spot. I think it was in [Queens recording studio] Power Play. It was pretty quick. I still got rejected by a lot of record labels after that. But they should have [rejected me]. This was toward the end of probably the best rap music has ever been, so you couldn’t just walk and get on like that."
Nas Discusses Illmatic's "Halftime," "Life's A Bitch" & "The World Is Yours"
"Halftime," off Nas' 1994 album, Illmatic, also made the list.
"That was the first song I recorded for Illmatic once we started, so 'Halftime' was a perfect song for me to let go to a soundtrack," he says. "[The song was originally recorded for the Zebrahead soundtrack in 1992.] The idea behind it was that it was like intermission for Rap music because something new is being introduced. There’s a performance happening in "Halftime" that has nothing to do with the game; it’s music that has nothing to do with the game. I knew I was onto something and I knew it would go over well. You just know. But of course, you don’t know how far you will go over well or how many people will receive you the way you’d like them to."
Another cut off Illmatic, "Life's a Bitch" also made the list, but this wasn't all due to him, Nas says.
"You got to credit [guest rapper] AZ with that, you know?" he says. "Each record [on Illmatic] was an extension of the last record. That just went off. "Life’s a Bitch" summed up my expression and my message of who I was at the time. The overarching message was that there’s more to life than what most people may think. In the beginning, I say, 'Clothes, bankrolls and hoes' and it’s gotta be more to life than that. I wrote, 'I woke up early on my born day/I’m 20/It's a blessing' and that feeling of being alive was strong. I had already felt like I’d been through a lot and I was just happy to be alive."
In April, AZ spoke with HipHopDX about this collaboration. "I helped build that house," AZ said, regarding Illmatic.
Another Illmatic selection discussed in the list is "The World Is Yours."
"That whole song was inspired by Scarface," Nas says. "There's a scene where [Tony Montana] took his queen and took over in the movie. He goes out on the balcony for some air, looks up out the sky and says, 'It’s time.' At this point in time, he sees a blimp with the message 'The world is yours' right there. That’s how real life is, you know? You’ll see a sign or some symbolism of what you’re going through; things that happen that tell you you’re at the right place at the right time. It was scenes and symbols like this that I grew up on that really made a difference in my head."
Nas Details "Dance" & "Bridging The Gap," Connection To Mother & Father
One of the songs picked for this list carries a meaning because of its connection to Nas' mother, Anne Jones, who passed away before he released his 2002 album, God Son. "My brother can’t listen to that song to this day," Nas says. "But it was an easy one to write for me. It’s an easy one. I had to get it out."
While "Dance" is an ode to his mother, Nas' "Bridging the Gap" is an ode to the rapper's relationship with his father, Olu Dara, who is also a guest on the track.
"I recorded this one with my pop [Jazz cornetist Olu Dara]," Nas says. "My mom had passed and I was trying to... my pop was always my man so I wanted to make sure we did things while we’re still here. [Producer] Salaam [Remi] was all for a challenge and always up for something different. And Salaam was real cool with my pop, so he just knew which way to go. We wrote this one together."
Nas Explains Impact Of "Hip Hop Is Dead"
Nas' "Hip Hop Is Dead" is also a cut that's detailed in the article, a selection he says he had thought about for some time.
"I was surprised no one named their album this before me," he says. "Bushwick Bill of Geto Boys had worn it on a T-shirt at one point. Tribe Called Quest talked about it in an interview I read about years ago. OutKast even mentions something in that area at some point. It was a topic within the Hip Hop community, so there had to be an album about it. And I felt like at the time it was needed.
"Will.i.am produced this and I thought, 'What’s better than to say Hip Hop is dead than with will.i.am, who’s a genius but not necessarily known as a 'real' Hip Hop guy, even though he is a Hip Hop guy.' To Hip Hop people, will.i.am is over there somewhere, so to get him to re-do the 'Thief’s Theme' beat, where—I don’t know if he knew when he played it for me—but I thought it was funny to have 'Thief’s Theme' as a single on the last album and then to do the same track with the same beat. Because shit is dead, so it doesn’t even matter what beat you use. So yeah, it was big-time funny to me. I was loving the criticism."
Additional Nas Songs Listed
"I Gave You Power"
"Nas Is Coming"
"Hate Me Now"
"Got Ur Self A..."
"Poppa Was A Playa"
"Last Real Nigga Alive"
"Who Killed It?"
"Not Going Back"