Nas is one of the most important figures in hip-hop history. Often titled the best lyricist in hip-hop, Nas helped increase the standard for lyricism in an era that was crucial to the future development of the genre. Whether it was storytelling or general wordplay, Nas always managed to push the limit with each album he released. However, as history recalls, Nas had a shaky discography filled with various peaks and troughs, attributing to the rumor that he had fallen off artistically. This article will sort through the clutter and reveal what makes each album a gem in its own way.
This list includes all 14 solo studio albums from Illmatic to King’s Disease and the two collaborative efforts: The Firm and Distant Relatives.
16. Nastradamus (1999)
The infamous album that marked the downfall of Nas; All of the complaints concerning Nas’ lack of huge radio records caught up to him on this album. On this album, Nas attempted to make a record that satisfy both mainstream heads and hardcore hip-hop fans. The album performed fairly well as the Ginuwine assisted “You Owe Me” caught a buzz, but Nas failed to deliver what would be the album perfect for all audiences. However, as time passed and trends change, you begin to realize Nastradamus has an amazing amount of records and wasn’t as bad as we remembered it to be. Tracks such as the engaging “Life We Chose” and the classy “Come Get Me” display the high standard of lyricism that we know Nas for. Far from Nas’ best album, Nastradamus was a bump in the road for his career, but proved to be a decent album will many great tracks.
Best Tracks: “Family”, “Life We Chose”, “Project Windows”
15. Street’s Disciple (2004)
Another album where people marked the downfall of Nas, the newly engaged rapper – at the time – decided to release a double album counting up to 24 tracks solo. While 24 tracks of Nas sounds like a great time, the album was bloated with many forgettable tracks. However, the gems uncovered on this album were so good that a compilation of the tracks could have worked better in Nas favor rather than a whole double album. Songs like the sentimental “Just A Moment” and the chaotic “Thief’s Theme” keep the album entertaining when you find yourself out of interest when listening.
Best Tracks: “Just A Moment”, “Thief’s Theme”, “Disciple”
14. Untitled (2008)
The highly controversial “Untitled” album marked a very strange phase in Nas’ life and career. Intending to name the album after a slur, he was prevented from naming the album as he liked so he had to resort to “Untitled.” Surprisingly enough, Nas nailed the mainstream records this time around with records such as the dynamic “Hero” on the album. Even so, Nas built this album to be a political product of the time, discussing everything from the Obama campaign to criticisms of the Bush administration. Due to the political landscape at the time playing a huge role in the album, you find that the album doesn’t age well compared to the times and events of today, but like all albums on the lower end of the list, there are many gems to be uncovered on this project.
Best Tracks: “Hero”, “Breathe, “Make the World Go Round”
13. The Lost Tapes 2 (2019)
The highly anticipated sequel to the cult classic compilation, The Lost Tapes, had a rather interesting reception from fans. Many found the album to be very underwhelming despite having a stacked roster in terms of production. Producers from RZA to Pharrell to Pete Rock all provided contributions to the album so expectations were sky high. Despite, a minor amount of unnecessary tracks, the album is cohesive as it maintains the same energy all throughout and the takeaways tracks are some of the best Nas songs we’ve received since his 2012 release, Life Is Good. Tracks like “Tanasia” and “Queen’s Wolf” show how Nas hasn’t stepped far from his creativity when it comes to his pen. A very overlooked project in Nas’s discography, The Lost Tapes 2 tapped into another chamber of Nas writing as he takes a more creative approach with each song on the album.
Best Tracks: “Queensbridge Politics”, “Tanasia”, “Lost Freestyle”
12. NASIR (2018)
After 6 years of not releasing a project, Nas returned to the scene in 2018 with a product of the Kanye Wyoming sessions. While you’d think a Nas album fully produced by Kanye would be a recipe for success, the recipe would soil very quickly as Kanye was caught up in the camaraderie of working on five projects at once. The concepts of the songs were genius, from flipping the iconic Slick Rick song “Children’s Story” on “Cops Shot the Kid” to reconciling with Puff on the rebellious “Not For Radio.” The music was very solid, but seemed very unfocused and could have been better had Kanye not scheduled this in between working on various albums at once.
Best Tracks: “Adam and Eve”, “everything”, “Bonjour”
11. The Firm – The Album (1997)
The Firm was on track to be the next biggest hip-hop group at the time after the classic posse cut, “Affirmative Action,” received a lot of praise. Along with Dr. Dre as an executive producer of a Firm album, the project was on its way to success. Unfortunately, the album would encounter numerous problems with industry relations and disagreements among the group, making the album a chaotic compilation rather than the supergroup success we had hoped for. Despite the minor inconsistencies, the album itself was fairly good for what it was and contains a lot of classic tracks with many features from Canibus, NORE and the new addition to the group ( at the time of release) Nature.
Best Tracks: “Phone Tap”, “Desperados”, “Executive Decision”, “Firm Fiasco”
10. Distant Relatives (2010)
The collaboration album with reggae legend, Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley was an overlooked gem at the time of release. Fusing the two genres of hip-hop and reggae was as the name of the album suggests: bringing the two distantly relative genres together to create a great body of work. Not only that, but features from both genres contribute to the project including Lil Wayne and Junior Reid, bridging the gap even more between the two musical categories. Admittedly, it doesn’t stand out like an Illmatic or It Was Written, but the whole album front to back is a great experience.
Best Tracks: “Patience”, “My Generation”, “Count Your Blessings”, “Friends”
9. Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)
Nas’ eight studio album, Hip Hop Is Dead, was another album that was swept under the rug, mainly due to the controversial title. The name Hip Hop Is Dead triggered a lot of artists, old and new, as they were under the impression that Nas declared the genre to be deceased. In reality, Nas was trying to bring back the authentic feel of hip-hop where artists were in control of the art they created rather than industry machines producing one-hit wonders. To accompany the concept, Nas created songs talking about the state of hip-hop culture, the forgotten legends and carrying on the traditions and values they instilled in his peer group. Along with remembering the past, Nas drops game on each track for the newer generation to follow in his and his peer’s footsteps. Songs like the legendary “Black Republican” with JAY-Z and the zealous “Hustlers” with The Game help bridge the gap in a divided genre between the old school and the new school. This album doesn’t get the shine it really deserves as almost every track lays the foundation to Nas embracing his OG status in hip-hop.
Best Tracks: “Black Republican”, “Hustlers”, “You Can’t Kill Me”, “Still Dreaming”
8. King’s Disease (2020)
The unexpected collaboration between Nas and producer, Hit-Boy was the pairing that we didn’t know we needed until we heard it. Hit-Boy provides a modern sound with a vintage feeling to the production, suitable for a rapper like Nas. The chemistry between the two is transparent throughout the album and shows Nas tapping in more with the newer generation, with features from Big Sean, Don Toliver and even Fivio Foreign. Fivio and Nas link with A$AP Ferg for the summer smash “Spicy” to bridge the gap between the different generations of New York artists while Big Sean & Don Toliver provide Nas another dose of contemporary hip-hop with “Replace Me.”
The album isn’t just Nas stepping out of his comfort zone as songs such as the nostalgic “Car #85” and the all-star Firm reunion “Full Circle” are included to show that Nas isn’t fully changing up anytime soon. The 38-minute album was a great 2020 standout and one of Nas’ more successful attempts at embracing the modern wave of hip-hop.
Best Tracks: “Full Circle”, “All Bad”, “The Cure”, “Car #85”
7. God’s Son (2002)
Following the tragic news of his mother passing away, Nas made God’s Son almost as a tribute to his angel in heaven. After dropping The Lost Tapes earlier that year, many were under speculation that Nas would undertake a more soulful sound on this project and while there were some soul elements in the samples, God’s Son took a different approach sonically. God’s Son stuck to the same formula as the critically acclaimed, Stillmatic, but Nas makes a few changes along the way. First off, we find Nas becoming more vulnerable, with songs like “Dance,” which is an emotional rollercoaster Nas takes us on to display his final words to his mother, and “Thugz Mansion (N.Y.)”, a heartfelt tribute to those that were lost in the street life and contains vocals from 2Pac.
While Nas gets deeper in the album, he also provides the explosive street anthems such as “Made You Look,” which birthed one of hip-hop’s best remixes, and “The Cross,” another perfect example of how deadly Nas is on the mic. The album remains thoroughly consistent all throughout and is one of Nas’ strongest efforts from the 2000’s.
Best Tracks: “Made You Look”, “Dance”, “The Cross”, “Revolutionary Warfare”
6. I Am… (1999)
A rather peculiar album in Nas discography, I Am… doesn’t really get the credit it deserves for being a Nas album. What turns people away from I Am… was the shaky rollout Nas endured. For many that don’t know, this album was leaked two months prior from its initial release date, leaving Nas scurrying for a fresh batch of tracks to include. When the album dropped, many were disappointed because the final product was nothing like the leaked version online, leaving a bad reputation on I Am… despite its commercial success. The lead singles for the album gained traction in the streets and the charts. The DJ Premier-produced “Nas Is Like” still rings in the ears of hip-hop heads while the Puff Daddy assisted, “Hate Me Now” created a tremendous build-up to the album’s release.
Also, the end product of I Am… contains some of the best album cuts ever, with “Favor for a Favor” bringing Nas and Scarface together for a legendary cut and “Undying Love” setting up one of the best storytelling songs in all of hip-hop. While it endured a lot of bumps on the road, I Am… is still an amazing project with a good portion of the album containing some of Nas’ best songs of all time.
Best Tracks: “Nas Is Like”, “Undying Love”, “Favor for a Favor”, “Small World”
5. Life Is Good (2012)
Nas’ most mature record to date – this album is Nas coming to terms with a lot things in his personal life. Everything from the recent divorce to his daughter growing up, Nas spills out every ounce of his personal life on this project. Almost every song on this album means something and represents a part of Nas’ life one way or another. Songs like “Daughters” and “Reach Out” keep in Nas in this zone of sentiment, but the good old Nas we know and love isn’t completely gone.
The Rick Ross-assisted “Accident Murders” and the Large Professor-produced “Stay” call Nas back into the rapping grove that we know and love him for. And who could forget the lovely “Cherry Wine” with Amy Winehouse vocals and jazz/soul instrumentation. Songs like these uplift the album and despite the minor inconsistencies throughout the project, classic material is written all over with records like these on there.
Best Tracks: “Cherry Wine”, “Daughters”, “Accident Murders”, “Stay”
4. The Lost Tapes (2002)
Who would have thought one of Nas’ best projects would be a series of loosies and throwaways that could have been grade A album cuts on previous projects? Containing some of the best production he’s has rapped on since Illmatic, The Lost Tapes showed people that Nas was still lethal on the mic in a time where people thought he lost his touch. With tracks like the dynamic “Blaze a 50” and the soothing “Doo Rags,” Nas’ string of throwaways proved to be better than most rapper’s best projects. Admittedly, the idea of an artists’ scrapped songs all on one album doesn’t sound too appealing but with the amount of songs Nas had to replace due to leaks, the songs would have released one way or another.
Best Tracks: “Blaze a 50”, “Doo Rags”, “Poppa Was a Playa”, “Purple”
3. Stillmatic (2001)
The ecstatic moment hip-hop had when this dropped was probably second to none. After getting dissed on the Summer Jam stage by his rival, Jay-Z, Nas knew he had to come back better than ever. As a result, Stillmatic was released. Some of Nas’ best moments from opening the album with the classic diss record, “Ether” to telling a whole story backwards on “Rewind.” However, the significant change came in through the production.
One of the main complaints for I Am… and Nastradamus was how wack the beats were. On Stillmatic, every beat and sample was amazing, whether it was the serious yet dynamic atmosphere on “One Mic,” or the classic piano keys on “Got Ur Self A…”. Nas’ beat selection on Stillmatic was phenomenal. There’s no doubt Nas’ made another classic with this project and just a little over twenty years later, the album has aged like fine wine.
Best Tracks: “One Mic”, “Rewind”, “Got Ur Self A…”, “Your da Man”, “The Flyest”
2. It Was Written (1996)
The mafioso-inspired It Was Written took Nas into a different direction from the path of his debut. While Illmatic focused on the problems that were going on in the hood, It Was Written focused on what people was doing in the hood. Every song that played was a different experience; you never know what you’re going to encounter on first listen. Whether you catch the dynamic story of life from a gun’s perspective on “I Gave You Power” or the crime mob of the neighborhood linking together on “Affirmative Action,” every song was a unique experience. Beats by the legendary DJ Premier and Dr. Dre ring throughout the album giving Nas space to grow creatively on some of the best production at the time.
The debates between It Was Written and Illmatic still continue after 25 years, as many think Nas’ delivered the perfect follow-up to the classic debut.
Best Tracks: “I Gave You Power”, “The Message”, “Affirmative Action”, “Take It In Blood”, “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)”
1. Illmatic (1994)
The mecca of hip-hop and undebatably the best debut album in hip-hop, Illmatic created waves in the genre and is still the standard for lyricism today. Nas captivated listeners with the nostalgic feeling of the album that’ll have non-New York residents feel like they lived in the neighborhood for years. However, the nostalgic feel didn’t deliver everything too sweet as the main focus for Nas was to speak on the conditions he and others in his neighborhood lived in.
On “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” Nas spits (“My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses / Live amongst no roses, only the drama”) to demonstrate that reality for him was different than what most saw when New York came on their televisions. Accompanied by some of the best producers in the game, such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and many more, most of them helped bring balance to the sound and uplift the grimy New York feel. The classic “N.Y. State of Mind” is a prime example as the sinister piano keys bring a menacing feel to the record with Nas’ talking that street shit and creating one of the hardest lines of all time – (“I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death”). And who can forget the classic feature verse by AZ on “Life’s a Bitch” with some of the best opening lines ever spit in rap (“Visualizin’ the realism of life in actuality / Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary”).
Confidently, the best hip-hop album of all time; many have tried to top this 1994 classic debut and while many have come close, nothing will ever have the same effect on the culture as Illmatic did. Nas, if you’re listening, thank you for creating classic material for over 30 years and we’re excited to see the future of Nas the businessman and the artist.
Best Tracks: “Life’s A Bitch”, “N.Y. State of Mind”, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, “The World Is Yours”, “One Love”
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Author: Alex C.