HipHop x Sports

Artist Time Machine – Nas

Artist Time Machine - Nas

So we decided to add a new and interesting feature to the website called “Artist Time Machine” – a look back on a featured rapper’s career – how they came up, what made them successful, the highlights of their career, some of our favorite songs, and some additional commentary on the artist’s impact on the rap game and on society and what the future holds for this person.

This week’s Artist Time Machine spotlight is on God’s Son aka Street’s Disciple aka Nastradamus aka Nasty aka Nas (many others he has self-proclaimed over the years) … Nas has always been probably my favorite rapper – so I feel confident with how I feel his career has gone over the years and what his mark is on hip-hop to this day…

We kicked this feature off with Nas because 2014 is turning out to be a big year for him. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned a number of things going on with him, most important being the 20th anniversay of Nas’ debut album Illmatic. This year is thus a celebration of Nas’ come-up, creating by most accounts the greatest rap album in history and maintaining the same level of success and relevancy to this day. Let’s hop in that time machine and take a look at where it all began:

(Click on the link to continue reading after the jump)

1994-1998: The Early Years / The Come-Up

– Illmatic (1994), Nas’ debut album – 10/10
– 59,000 copies sold in first week – #12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Best songs: The World is Yours, It Ain’t Hard to Tell, Memory Lane

Nas bursted on to the scene in 1994 with his debut album, “Illmatic.” This album DEFINES old-school rap … More importantly, this album still to this day is considered the best rap album of all time … NO ONE has ever been able to accomplish what Nas was able to accomplish coming out of the gate … Usually an artist needs to get into a rhythm and find his niche in the game before delivering a classic … Nas did it right away … This type of music from Nas hasn’t been my favorite, but I respect the hell out of it, especially considering the fact that no song on the album had any guest appearances  … If you take the time to listen to every lyric front to back on this CD, it’s hard NOT to be amazed … This album guaranteed Nas a spot in stardom, and based on his love for his hometown of Queensbridge, NY, it’s clear that Nas set out what he was trying to accomplish by putting this place on the map and showing the world what he was all about …

“My first album had no famous guest appearances,
The outcome – I’m crowned the best lyricist.” – Nas (on Stillmatic [2001])

As I posted last night, Nas will celebrate the 20th anniversary of this iconic album by performing the album front to back at Coachella and other venues in 2014. He’s also releasing a 2 disc set entitled Illmatic XX and a documentary entitled “Time Is Illmatic” is in the works as well.

With expectations so high, it was nearly impossible for Nas to satisfy everyone with his sophomore album, It Was Written, but he did just about as best as he could given the expectations…

– It Was Written (1996), Nas’ 2nd studio album – 8.5/10
– 268,000 copies sold in first week – #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Best songs: The Message, If I Ruled the World, Affirmative Action, Nas Is Coming

That being said, this album will always be considered another very solid album from Nasty. It may not have had the global impact that Illmatic had, but the significance of this album pops up here and there among rap’s inner circles. Lupe Fiasco has always said that Nas’s “It Was Written” is one of his great inspirations for rapping:

“While in the midst of listening to ‘It Was Written’ as a teen I was completely unaware of the existence of ‘Illmatic.’ It became my soundtrack for a time…all day everyday, everywhere…” – Lupe Fiasco

Other rappers in the past have praised It Was Written for songs that have influenced hip-hop culture to this day. So, on its own, It Was Written was still a majorly successful rap album that influenced a culture. The album still maintained its old school feel, with a lot of smoother, slower, and more mellow tracks meant to promote social consciousness and get you to really think rather than just bob your head. Nas definitely goes lighter on this CD, but the message is still clear, and the impact and significance that Nas had at this stage in his career meant he was on the road to becoming hip-hop’s elite.

It was at this time that Nas linked up with fellow rappers AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega to start the rap group, The Firm. He would later make an album with this group which was pretty solid as well. While Illmatic had no guest features on the album, It Was Written had a few songs enlisting other artists like Dr. Dre, Lauryn Hill from The Fugees, and fellow Firm members Foxy Brown & AZ. Here’s one of the standout tracks from It Was Written that features some of the other Firm members:

1998 – 2000: An Uninspired Rapper Has A Long-Overdue Slump

Looking back, we can look at this phase of Nas’s career as a “slump” rather than his fading into irrelevancy. That’s actually a good thing, because rappers who go through one or two bad CD’s over the course of a couple years usually NEVER come back from it. Instead, they just get stuck in the past and can’t adapt to the changing times. Around this time, Nas had been getting a lot of pressure from record companies to make more commercial, radio-friendly hits. Nas didn’t really provide that his first two albums – although they were critically acclaimed by rap fans, his record company was looking for something else. During this time, Nas listened to his superiors, and put out a couple of works that he probably wasn’t proud of. Luckily, Nas found a way later on to not have to compromise his rap core and still be able to put out more mainstream music, but initially on albums like these he struggled a bit.

As I wrote in a previous editorial about what it means to be successful in hip-hop, Nas is a special rapper because he eventually gained the ability to overcome this slump and rise from the ashes in a truly epic way… We’ll get to that later …

After the original luster of Nas as “hip-hop’s prodigy” wore off a little bit, Nas’ mainstream tendencies put him into a little slump … He got away from what made him great, and made songs geared towards radio and more mainstream attention (which he didn’t really succeed at doing anyway). His third solo album, I Am (1999), could be considered a commercial success, but most true Nas fans weren’t big fans of the entirety of the album. It’s on this album where Nas put out some of his more famous singles, including the track “Nas Is Like” as well as “Hate Me Now” with P.Diddy. They’re linked below:

– I Am (1999), Nas’ 3rd studio album – 7.5/10
– 470,000 copies sold in first week – #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Best Songs: Hate Me Now (Feat. P. Diddy), Nas Is Like, Small World

Nas may have only flirted with releasing a dud of an album in I Am, however on his next album Nastradamus (only 7 months later), he undeniably put out the worst project of his career.

– Nastradamus (1999), Nas’ 4th Studio Album – 5/10
– 232,000 copies sold in first week – #7 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Best songs: New World, Family (Feat. Mobb Deep), God Love Us

His fourth solo album, Nastradamus (1999), was a pretty big disappointment for critics and fans alike. The album was originally supposed to be a follow-up album from throwaway material from I Am, but Nas decided to make a few more songs and release it as its own album a couple months after I Am. It was during this time where it felt like Nas was just another rapper. None of his material he was putting out really set him apart… I can’t really blame Nas for this, though … Every artist has this in their career, and Nas’ happened after he was working his ass off to release his 3rd album … He probably never intended this to be an album anyway, so it’s tough to judge the guy for that …

Regardless, the path of Nas’ career was clearly taking a turn towards more mainstream singles … Not that this was a bad thing – it just seemed as if the course of his 3rd and 4th albums were much much different from the stuff he put out for Illmatic and It Was Written. It really seemed like Nas lost a little bit of the identity that made him great, made him the intimidating yet respected rapper … It looked like his career needed a jolt …

He got one in the form of a crosstown rival from Brooklyn calling himself the King of New York …

2001 – 2003: Feud With Jay-Z Sparks The Inspiration Nas Was Looking For 

Along came Jay-Z … I’m sure most people are aware of the now-infamous feud between hip-hop juggernats Nas & Jay-Z, but it’s hard to pinpoint where this beef originated and I can go into gruesome detail about it, but I’ll spare you. But for the most part, some say it had to do with little incidents such as Nas’s refusal to collaborate with Jay-Z on a “Dead Presidents 2” performance (Nas is sampled in the chorus of Jay’s song), while others (including myself) believe it had to do with the power struggle for New York City. It could be a number of factors that led to this, but no one could deny that it was a clear power struggle…

Both wanted to be claimed King of New York. If you earned that title, you basically earned the title King of Rap. It was a powerful position to have… This all started with some cryptic disses to one another on a couple of songs… It seemed as if the nature of the feud wasn’t too serious, and the two weren’t really getting under each other’s skins enough to throw a haymaker punch back at the other one … Then, the highly publicized feud magnified when Jay-Z came out with the song “Takeover” off his album The Blueprint. This song gained a lot of attention, and many wondered how Nas would react to such a large-scale diss:

“Went from Nasty Nas to Esco’s trash
Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage
Fell from “top 10” to “not mentioned at all”
To your bodyguard’s “Oochie Wally”‘s verse better than yours
Matter of fact you had the worst flow on the whole fucking song” – Jay-Z in Takeover

Turns out, this was all the inspiration Nas needed to remind people why he’s at the top of rap’s elite. With his release of his latest album Stillmatic looming, Nas took to the mic to deliver THE MOST hard-hitting and vicious rap diss songs ever in “Ether.”

I’ll let this video speak for itself. I wouldn’t know what lyrics to sample from this song because every line is pure FIRE… If you’re interested, here is the “rap genius” for “Ether” in which all of the lyrics are explained. He hits Jay-Z at his core … There’s no denying that he touched on subjects that Jay-Z never thought were possible … Apparently, Nas was at first very reluctant to retaliate to Jay’s “Takeover,” but the second he was convinced to do so, an instant classic was made.  Following the song’s release, the entire hip-hop community was in shock. Nas clearly responded to the rap kingpin in a ferocious way … In a poll released by Hot 97 asking people who they thought made the better diss song, 58% of the responders said that Nas’ “Ether” was a better diss song to Jay-Z’s “Takeover.”

Try to disregard the title of this upcoming video as well as the 2nd half of the video (I’m trying to stay objective here) … But the reason I posted this was because I wanted to show you how Jay-Z responded to Nas’ “Ether” in a Hot 97 interview following their release of the poll … It’s pretty clear Jay-Z is at a loss for words … He can’t even hide the fact that he is genuinely hurt by the track …

This was definitely the peak of the feud between these two hip-hop juggernauts, but both artists would go on to make a couple more disses towards the other in future works.

Personally, I’ll always believe that Nas won this feud hands down… For those of you who don’t know (you’ll read this later on in the post), Nas later signed on to Def Jam Records in 2006, which essentially meant Jay-Z was his new boss. Despite this, I think these two rappers were fighting for just success and popularity. Nas has always been an extremely quiet and reclusive guy; he rarely shows his face and isn’t a big fan of the limelight … I think his shot at Jay-Z was more for preserving his pride and dignity … Jay-Z has developed into a household name – it’s no doubt he is the King of New York and probably the most influential artist of our time (along with his wife – talk about a power couple) … But a lot of Jay-Z’s success has to do with his business ventures and his success as a pop artist … Nas was never really into that, and never will be… Nas will always be known as one of hip-hop’s “wise men.” He isn’t always the center of attention, but when he decides to speak up, everyone will listen. He’s gained the respect of everyone in the game. Regardless, despite the end result of where these two extremely successful rappers are presently, I don’t think Nas was aiming for the same power that Jay-Z currently holds. I think he only wanted to defend his dignity as a hip-hop artist and allow us to appreciate his worth to the game as a lyricist and as a general figure … I can say without a shred of doubt that he achieved that goal

Real quick – Besides “Ether,” Stillmatic was a hip-hop classic from Nas that can’t be overlooked.

– Stillmatic (2001), Nas’ 5th Studio Album – 9.5/10
– 342,800 copies sold in first week – #8 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Best Songs: Ether, One Mic, Rule, Got Yourself A Gun, What Goes Around

Each track is a quality song that deserves its one place on the album. One of Nas’ most iconic, classic, lyrical, and unforgettable songs of his career also should not be overlooked. The track One Mic received accolades from all critics, with Nick Butler of Sputnikmusic calling it “the best rap song of the decade.” I’ll let the song speak for itself:

Each and every time, this song sends chills up my spine. The way each verse builds up to such a dramatic point over and over makes the song chilling, and the lyrics are like poetry…

The album Stillmatic had a fitting title – on so many different fronts, it brought Nas back to his place at the top of the rap game… It was the inspiration he needed to re-discover his passion for music and his undeniable lyricism that he found for himself 7 short years ago on Illmatic… Since Stillmatic, Nas has consistently put out solid works to cement his legacy as one of the best.

2003 – Present: Tumultuous Events in Nas’ Personal Life Reflect the Artistic Direction of His Music Career (and he makes up with Jay-Z)

I’m most familiar with this stage in Nas’ career because this time period was when my fandom of Nas was at its peak. I followed both his music as well as what was going on in his life, and it’s pretty evident that the many things that happened to Nas throughout this time period affected the type of music he put out to his audiences:

  1. His Mother’s Sickness & Death
    – Nas was always very close to his mother. He praises her all throughout his career for raising him to be the man he is today. In April 2002, before the release of his 2003 CD God’s Son, Nas’ mother passed away of cancer.

    – God’s Son (2002), Nas’ 6th Studio Album – 8/10
    – 156,000 copies sold in first week – #18 on U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
    – Best songs: Made You Look, Get Down, Dance, Heaven, I CanDespite some hard-hitting tracks on this record, a lot of the songs on this CD reflect Nas’ sadness over his loss. One of my favorites is the song, “Dance,” a beautiful tribute to his mother.

    I said earlier that Nas’ feud with Jay-Z was winding down at this point, but a lot of this had to do with Nas’ personal issues. Once his mother got sick after the release of Stillmatic, Nas became much more reclusive and was more hesitant to partake in his feud with Jay-Z. It’s funny how everything else in your life can seem so insignificant when you’re hit with something as tragic as a mother getting sick and dying. This stage in Nas’ life I’m sure helped him move on from some of the hate and become more a mature man, father, and musician.

  2. His Marriage to Kelis
    – In 2004, Nas finally tied the knot, marrying R&B singer Kelis best known for the song “Milkshake.” Leading up to their marriage, he released a double album entitled Street’s Disciple.
    – Street’s Disciple (2004), Nas’ 7th Studio Album – 7.5/10
    – 232,000 copies sold in first week – #5 on U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
    – Best songs: Just A Moment, Thief’s Theme, Virgo, Nazareth SavageAs is the case with this time of his life, a lot of the songs on this record deal with his impending marriage to Kelis, his responsibilities as a father (“Me & You [Dedicated to Destiny]”), his reminiscence of his past (“Remember the Times”), and once again his grief of his mother (“Live Now”) … Overall, the album was pretty solid if you’re a fan of Nas … I can listen to Nas over practically every beat – so even though there were some mediocre beats on here, I still thoroughly enjoyed listening to it.
  3. His Criticism and Views on Current Hip-Hop
    – In October 2005, Nas made a surprise appearance at Jay-Z’s “I Declare War” concert, and the two performed Jay-Z’s song “Dead Presidents” together (where Nas’ song ‘The World Is Yours’ is featured as the hook).

    I Declare War Jay Nas
    Essentially ending their beef, Nas then signed on to Jay-Z’s Def Jam empire in 2006 before the release of his 8th studio album, Hip Hop Is Dead.

    – Hip Hop Is Dead (2006), Nas’ 8th Studio Album – 9/10
    – 355,880 copies sold in first week – #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
    – Best Songs: Hip Hop is Dead, Still Dreaming, Black Republicans, Can’t Forget About You, Hustlers, Hold Down the Block, & Let There Be Light

    Hip Hop Is Dead is probably my favorite album from Nas. It’s never been heralded as one of his classics, but the style of rap he employs on this CD is my favorite style of Nas, and it really represents the type of rap Nas has been pushing in the modern day. It’s got a good mix of harder tracks where Nas spares no bullshit (literally – “Money Over Bullshit”) along with slower jams to bob your head and reflect to … I really enjoy bumping this CD when I’m driving at night, especially when it’s like through a city or something. You can really feel songs like “Let There Be Light” & “Hold Down The Block” when you’re just zoning out. Some of the more popular songs are ones where other hip-hop heavyweights are featured. Check them out:

    – As for the title track, I’ve never been the one to decipher Nas’s thoughts on certain subjects. He certainly thinks a lot and is socially conscious, but he’s also a bit like Kanye in that he complains about so many things and often times his complaints are either ill-founded or just way out there. In terms of his complaints with hip-hop, many thought Nas put out this record to take a shot at “crunk” and “snap” music (mostly Southern rap) with its repetitive and catchy hooks. He thought that this new type of rap cheapened the art form of hip-hop.

    – More globally, Nas had a ton of issues with an artists’ control over his own music and how the music industry has generally just taken a turn for the worse. Check out what he had to say:

    “When I say ‘hip-hop is dead’, basically America is dead. There is no political voice. Music is dead … Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done. It’s like a slingshot, where you throw the muthafucka back and it starts losing speed and is about to fall down. That’s where we are as a country … what I mean by ‘hip-hop is dead’ is we’re at a vulnerable state. If we don’t change, we gonna disappear like Rome. I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop … We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say.”                   – Nas

    Decide for yourself what his thoughts are by listening to the title track:

  4. He goes semi-crazy and wants to name his album N****R / Political Feuds
    Remembering my first thoughts when hearing Nas planned on naming his next album N****r in October of 2007, all I could think of is that this guy had lost his marbles. Like I mentioned with Hip-Hop Is Dead, Nas has always been one of my favorite rappers, but he’s almost like a lesser version of Kanye West in his impact on society outside of music (for better or for worse). I won’t go into his reasons for wanting to name his album that title, but long story short, he wanted to bring more attention to the word and how it has been used in society… Regardless of his intentions, it wasn’t going to end well for Nas. Major chain stores such as Wal-Mart & Target refused to sell the album under that title, and literally all political pundits (from Fox News to Jesse Jackson) & suburbia parents were outraged at Nas’ decision for his impending album. Nas chose to drop the name on May 2008, 2 months before the album’s release, giving the album an Untitled name:“It’s important to me that this album gets to the fans. It’s been a long time coming. I want my fans to know that creatively and lyrically, they can expect the same content and the same messages. The people will always know what the real title of this album is and what to call it.”             – Nas 

    Untitled (2008), Nas’ 9th Studio Album – 9/10
     187,000 copies sold in first week – #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
     Best songs: Queens Get the Money, Hero, America, Testify, Y’all My N****s 

    The album itself was really good in my opinion. He tackles a lot of the racial issues and other socially conscious issues, but it doesn’t take away from the quality of the CD. His big single for the album, “Hero” (Feat. Keri Hilson), was a perfect single for Nas. It was great to bump on the radio but it didn’t compromise his style. The rest of the album is certainly not for partying – but it has its place in Nas’ library.Besides his single “Hero,” my two favorite tracks on the album without a doubt are his two slowest songs – “Queens Get the Money” & “Testify” … “Queens Get the Money” is the album’s opening song – it has a chilling piano sequence that turns out to be one of the best “beats” on the album … For lack of a better word, the song is eerie … It sort-of lets you in on the mysterious nature that has surrounded the album and the content of the music itself … Couldn’t ask for a better introThe other “slow” track that I love is “Testify.” Can’t really put my finger on why – it’s just a really solid, smooth track where Nas sort-of goes into the racial tension that he’s felt leading up to this album … I don’t like it for that reason, but it’s still a song that will really have you relaxing and thinking deeply when listening …

Surrounding the release of this album was Nas’ feud with Fox News frontman Bill O’Reilly for the album’s title along with a number of different issues. O’Reilly got pissed at Nas for playing a Virginia Tech memorial concert following the shooting there in 2007. O’Reilly alluded to some of Nas’ songs like “Shoot ‘Em Up,” “Got Yourself A Gun,” and “Made You Look.” In response, Nas wrote a nice little song about O’Reilly and his boys over at Fox News:

          5. His Split With Kelis

– Nas’ most recent personal issues dealt with his split with his wife Kelis following a 4 year marriage and one baby boy together (2009). There wasn’t much attention centered around the divorce itself, but Nas certainly made it the subject of his most recent album Life is Good in many of the songs on the album as well as the cover of the album itself:
– Life is Good (2012), Nas’ 11th Studio Album
– 149,000 copies sold in first week – #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts
– Named the Best Album of 2012 by The Source and Okayplayer, and nominated for “Best Rap Album of the Year” at the 2013 Grammy Awards
– Best Songs: Accident Murderers (Feat. Rick Ross), Daughters, World’s An Addiction (Feat. Anthony Hamilton), Nasty

On the album cover, Nas is seen holding the only thing Kelis left behind before packing up and leaving their house, a green dress. Nas definitely seems torn up over the divorce and probably gave Kelis a pretty bad reputation with this album, but he doesn’t give her the treatment that Eminem would give his ex-wife. A lot of the songs on the album are objective and just highlight Nas’ emotions during this time of his life. Nothing really notable…

What does the future hold?

That’s a good question for one of hip-hop’s most storied and respected artists. Nas plans to release his 12th studio album in 2014, which will be his last album for Def Jam. In an interview recently, Nas hinted that one of the singles would be titled “Sinatra in the Sands” (Featuring Jay-Z & Justin Timberlake), which would obviously be dope…

I wouldn’t say Nas has the brightest future compared to most of the artists we post on our site, but I also wouldn’t say that Nas is striving for so much of a bright future. Nas has hit a point in his career where he can consistently put out quality music that rap fans will always enjoy. He’s universally respected among the rap community, and for the rest of his career he can enjoy making low-pressure & artistically-independent pieces of work without the worry of how it’s going to sell or how it’s going to be perceived. Nas is a relatively quiet guy, and even though he once went toe-to-toe with Jay-Z for the throne, I think he would prefer making music at his own pace and staying out of the limelight to allow other hungry rappers to get their time in the sun …

But in the meantime, it has been a hell of a run for the Queensbridge rapper … He’s gone through ups & downs, experimented with different styles, and graced us with some of hip-hop’s most iconic songs and lyrics that most other rappers could only dream to attain. He’s accomplished nearly everything he has set out to do, and from now on, he has the luxury of adding some more quality music to his collection for all of us to enjoy …

Enjoy 2014 – it’s the year of Nas. Other rappers will certainly make their mark on the game, but don’t forget about the impact a young kid from Queensbridge, NY made a short 20 years ago with his album Illmatic. We’ll be posting when more of this stuff surfaces, but in the meantime, enjoy the music that Nas, a man that certainly deserves a lifetime achievement award, has graced us with.

Be sure to check out next week’s ‘Artist Time Machine’ Feature on SoSynonymous – In preparation for his upcoming debut album “Oxymoron,” we’ll be taking a look back on the career of Schoolboy Q and what’s in store for his future!


One comment on “Artist Time Machine – Nas

  1. Pingback: The Year of Nas Continues … Nas’ Television Show “Street Dreams” In The Works for 2014 | So.Synonymous

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This entry was posted on 02/10/2014 by in Artist Time Machine, Editorials, Hip-Hop and tagged , , .
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