The Legacy of Nas Doesn’t Stop At ‘Illmatic’

When you talk to the average hip hop fan about Nas and ask them what’s his best work, a good amount of the time you’ll hear Illmatic. If you ask them why, you usually get the cliche, “Man, the beats were incredible. He had DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-tip, and L.E.S. He painted some unbelievable pictures. Awwww man!” Then you ask “What about after Illmatic?” and you’ll usually get hit with, “He hasn’t made anything better. I wish he’d go back to Nasty Nas”.

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L to R: DJ Premier, Q-tip, Nas & Large Professor

Some hold the whole beat selection gripe against him. Vlad called himself spearheading the “Nas is the worst beat picker of all time” movement, yet the beat he said was the best on Nasir was the Slick Rick loop “Cop Shot the Kid” (yeah okay, vladamir. Don’t say shit else cause you can’t pick beats ya damn self). It seems like Nas has never been allowed to evolve. He’s a 46 year old father and multimillionaire. No way in hell are you getting that 20 year old kid that raps with a razor blade under his tongue nowadays.

When you listen to Illmatic, you can tell there was some pain in that project. On the iconic “Life’s a Bitch” featuring AZ, till this day I don’t know who had the best verse. In the first verse of “Memory Lane”, where he reminisced on park jams and his man being shot over a sheep coat – why would he want to go back to that, when he’s doing so well now?

What if I told you “One Mic” could go neck and neck with “Halftime” or “Rewind” is more creative than “One Time 4 Your Mind”? No. Even better. What if I said “Take It In Blood” and “I Gave You Power” is better than “The World Is Yours” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”? Last but not least, what if I told you It Was Written is Nas’ best work? You’d say that I lost my damn mind and that’s hip hop blasphemy. Well dammit, call Peachford (hospital in Atlanta for mental health) and tell ’em I need my rubber room ready!

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Illmatic vs It Was Written

Here’s what the hip hop icon recently said in an interview with Haute Living:

“I’m very grateful—it’s so crazy—but to celebrate one album when I’ve made over 10, all the things I’ve worked on—and I’ve been working for so long—to celebrate one album over all else is corny to me. I don’t want to celebrate another Illmatic anything. I’m done. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for appreciating that record, but it’s over.”

Honestly, I’m not mad at him at all for saying this. For the last 25 years, Nas has influenced several MCs from J. Cole to Kendrick Lamar, Nick Grant, Rapsody and the list goes on. You don’t last as long as Nas has with just one classic album. You just don’t.

When Jay-Z dropped 4:44, it was praised because of his growth. The cat who once rapped about losing 92 bricks was now talking about generational wealth and fixing his marriage and everyone applauded. Meanwhile, people are still waiting on Illmatic 2 to be made. But like I said, I feel that It Was Written is Nas’ greatest work.

Mark Coleman from Rolling Stone magazine said in his review of It Was Written: “Literary skill is not the prime attribute of most hardcore rappers; these days the main attraction in hip-hop seems to be authenticity, not articulation. So the second album from Nas is frustrating.” Mark Coleman also went on to say that, “‘It Was Written’ sound lazy and automatic — just the latest blatant example of trashy tough-guy talk. When Nas finally aligns his mind with his mouth, he’ll truly be dangerous.”

And this is why we need to do a better job on who we let into our culture. We wouldn’t even be having these discussions we have now if we nipped this in the bud 23 years ago. It Was Written is a masterpiece from top to bottom. This album showed the growth of Nasir Jones. You saw him paint more than stories; you saw him write mini-movies.

The set up is something you could have read straight out of a Donald Goines novel. You can picture every line. Nas and Havoc hooking up was like magic. During It Was Written, Nas became a father to his first child. A daughter named Destiny. This may have sparked the inspiration for the song “Black Girl Lost”. Those lyrics are still very relevant to this day telling black women to know their worth. Would 19 year old Nas have created that?

Now depending on who you ask, the DJ Premier produced “I Gave You Power” might’ve been inspired by the Organized Konfusion classic “Stray Bullet“. I cannot confirm that, but both are incredible records and Nas has received a Hip Hop Quotable in The Source magazine for his third verse. He definitely took his penmanship in a different direction, which opened up the door for the classic “Rewind” which appeared on his 2001 Stillmatic album. Did anybody catch that the third verse of “The Message” was that scene in Belly where Nas got shot at the barbershop?

We were witnessing a genius at work, but we were behind by two years because we wanted another Illmatic. Folks started yelling, “Nas went commercial” with the lead single “If I Ruled the World” featuring the incredible Lauryn Hill. To me, “If I Ruled the World” comes off like an unapologetic essay written by a young man from the projects trying to find his way.

I don’t expect people like Mark Coleman to understand “If I Ruled the World”. The point was just to live your best life before that was even a quote. “Live Nigga Rap” was just another one of many classic Nas and Mobb Deep collaborations we were blessed with.

“Affirmative Action” was the introduction to The Firm supergroup (with Cormega being replaced with Nature) that should have given us at least two or three more albums. But shit happens. During the height of the east coast/west coast fued, Nas hooked up with Dr. Dre and gave us “Nas Is Coming” where in the intro the two discussed making history, getting this money, and forgetting all about that east/west bullshit. In retrospect, it makes you wonder who was really pumping that beef? But that’s another topic.

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The Firm (Nas, Foxy Brown & AZ)

If you ask me, the lyricism on “Take It In Blood” can easily rival “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”. “MCs be crawling out every whole in slum / you’ll be aight like blood money in pimps cum…” That line didn’t give you that bitter face?!

Illmatic is like watching Jordan or LeBron or Iverson in their rookie year and saying to yourself, “that kid is going to be a legend. He’s gonna be one of the greatest.” It Was Written is what propelled him to be the icon he is today. Four weeks at #1 on the Billboard was no accident. I don’t know if it’s because he had DJ Premier, Large Professor Q-tip and Pete Rock in his corner. I guess folks don’t wanna disrespect legends.

But on It Was Written, he had L.E.S. and Premier once again, he had Havoc, he had the Trackmasters, and Dr. Dre. It’s not like had slouch producers. We’ll always love Illmatic, but I’m agreeing with Nas – let’s move on. There’s so much more people have missed because of it.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and they do not reflect the views or opinions of Weekly Rap Gods.

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