A Masterful Discography: Nas
Updated: Feb 12
Nas is one of my favourite rappers. You'll seldom find a "Top 10 Rappers" list that doesn't include him, and that's for good reason. Not only is his storytelling ability the sharpest in hip hop, but his versatility as an artist, his longevity as a rapper, and his ability as an MC exceed almost all his contemporaries. From his classic '94 debut to 2022's King's Disease III, he continues to impress new generations. He has cemented himself as one of the greatest rappers of all time, with one of the most masterful discographies not only in hip hop, but in music generally.
1. Illmatic (1994)
Nobody can properly articulate the brilliance of Illmatic. With a stacked producer list featuring legends from Pete Rock to DJ Premier, it was guaranteed to be great, but Nas's performance is the real reason it's hailed as hip hop's magnum opus. His storytelling ability is unmatched, painting such vivid pictures with his words of the tensions and troubles of life in New York. On top of his lyrical ability, his flow is so smooth, especially on tracks like “The World Is Yours” where he thrives on the bright and hopeful production. Across its tight ten tracks and forty minute runtime, all the fat is trimmed. Every moment feels essential, and no song disrupts the album’s flow. From front to back, Illmatic is one of the most consistent and cohesive albums in hip hop history.
2. It Was Written (1996)
After dropping what many to consider the greatest album in hip hop, there was immense pressure on Nas to deliver with his sophomore album, It Was Written. The end product, in my opinion, isn’t quite as brilliant as its predecessor, but to assume it would be is an unreasonable expectation. While it isn’t as tight and consistent as Illmatic, It Was Written is still a phenomenal album. Highlights like “I Gave You Power” showcase Nas experimenting more with his storytelling ability, rapping through the perspective of a gun passed from owner to owner, killing and killing. The jazzy boom bap sound from Illmatic is still present for the majority of songs here, but there are moments of experimentation here and there. “Nas Is Coming” contains a spacey Dr Dre beat with a group of haunting vocalists chanting the chorus, making for a cold and atmospheric track quite unlike anything else on the record. “The Message” features a simple guitar loop, with the production taking a backseat for Nas’s ability to be on full show. It Was Written also has far more features – from AZ to Foxy Brown to Mobb Deep –giving the album some diversity. While it’s often regarded as being in the shadow of Illmatic, It Was Written still has stellar moments, and would be many rappers’ best work.
3. I Am… (1999)
I Am… is an album which took a long time for me to appreciate. After repeated listens, there is a lot to love, but at the same time, the weaker moments are far more prominent than on his previous releases. On I Am…, Nas combines the classic boom bap style of his first two albums with the trendy sound of hardcore hip hop that legends like DMX were popularising. This shift in style is obvious on tracks like “Life Is What You Make It” which has the sparse and bouncy production of a DMX song, or on “Hate Me Now” which features some of the most explosive production on any Nas song up to this point. While the album is mostly good, few moments are incredible. There are standouts like the iconic “Nas Is Like” or the Scarface collaboration “Favour for a Favour”, but they are outweighed by the more standard and mediocre tracks. “K-I-SS-I-N-G” is a decent song with a horrid hook, and tracks like “Big Things” and “Dr. Knockboot”, while tolerable, don’t offer much on top of that. I Am… was originally intended to be a double album, but some material was leaked online and subsequently scrapped. Therefore, considering the unfortunate circumstances around the project, it’s admirable that Nas was still able to produce an album of this quality.
4. Nastradamus (1999)
Nastradamus embodies everything wrong with I Am…, amplified and stretched out to an insufferable sixty-two minute runtime. The album has a promising beginning. The title track “Nastradamus” has some punchy production and a fun hook which makes for an overall great song, and “Come Get Me” is a classic Nas and DJ Premier collaboration, which always makes for a good track. After “Come Get Me”, however, the album’s quality drops further and further. While Nas offers a range of mediocre verses and irritating hooks, it’s the production which poses the largest problem on Nastradamus. The vocal sample on “Last Words” sounds as though it’s trying to form a grand and suspenseful atmosphere, but it just falls flat. “Family” features some obnoxious horns, again trying to emphasise a triumphant sound that just isn’t there. And, for some bizarre reason, “New World” sees Nas rapping over the instrumental from “Africa” by Toto, which is a mesh of sounds which reads as bad on paper as it sounds on speakers. Sandwiched between the glaringly bad moments of Nastradamus are stretches of forgettable tracks, not notable in any positive or negative way. Nastradamus was an album made in a panic by Nas, using leftovers from I Am… along with some rushed new material to turn the leaked double album into two separate projects. The end product sounds half-hearted, messy, and incomplete, which it was.
5. Stillmatic (2001)
Thankfully, two years after Nastradamus, Nas picked things back up with Stillmatic. It’s the most refreshing Nas album since Illmatic, but despite its name, Stillmatic sounds unlike anything Nas had made up to this point. The production is upbeat at some points and gloomy at others, embodying a range of different sounds, drifting away from the classic boom bap Nas was known for. The whole album has this rustic sound, but not to its detriment; it gives it the feeling that this is Nas starting over for the new millennium, and just like on his original debut, he sounds determined, with an unyielding fire in his voice. “Ether” is the iconic Jay-Z diss which makes for one of the most energetic tracks on the album, with slower cuts such as “Smokin’” and “You’re da Man” sounding far more moody and atmospheric. Nas’s writing is back in top form, especially on the song “Rewind” where Nas details an entire story in reverse. After a small slump in the late ‘90s, Stillmatic was proof that Nas had longevity.
6. The Lost Tapes (2002)
The Lost Tapes sees Nas evolve even further, maintaining the quality and consistency of Stillmatic but with a far crisper sound. The production here is immaculate – rivalling Illmatic for his best produced work ever – with songs like “Purple” and “Doo Rags” featuring these soft and elegant piano samples which give the album the same youthful, carefree energy as early Kanye West. From front to back, The Lost Tapes is perfect, with such a diverse palette of sounds and some of the sharpest lyricism of Nas’s career. This album, along with God’s Son in the same year, are the only Nas albums I would call beautiful. Unlike the in-your-face and explosive sound of his ‘90s records, The Lost Tapes feels far more patient and subtle. In my opinion, it’s his second best album, and a major highlight of the 2000s.
7. God’s Son (2002)
God’s Son is arguably Nas’s most emotional album. Thematically, the album revolves around the death of Nas’s mother, with the subject matter touching on religion, grief, life, and turmoil. There are still classic Nas tracks here like the jazzy opener “Get Down” or the braggadocious “Made You Look”, but deeper into the album, Nas is at the most vulnerable and exposed he would be his entire career. “Dance” is a heart-breaking song where Nas wishes to see his mother and dance with her one more time, joined by his father playing the cornet as they grieve together. It’s a heavy album to digest, but after getting comfortable with its unorthodox production choices and personal lyrics, I believe it to be yet another masterpiece in Nas’s catalogue.
8. Street’s Disciple (2004)
Five years after his failure to deliver the double disc I Am…, Street’s Disciple is Nas’s first official double album. After the run Nas had been on from Stillmatic to God’s Son, a whole double album of Nas could have been excellent, but the result is underwhelming. Street’s Disciple is an inconsistent mess, and its length only amplifies its problems. The first half is spotty, with a handful of solid tracks like “Nazareth Savage” and “Disciple” offering interesting – albeit half-baked – concepts and production. The second half, much like Nastradamus, is when the album truly starts to dip in quality. The title track, “Street’s Disciple”, may be the best song on the whole album, with theatrical string production and a vicious performance from Nas. After this, however, the production is subpar at best, the concepts are dull, and Nas’s lyricism is noticeably weak. There is an agonising run of tracks about nothing but sex and love. The themes become monotonous, and this isn’t helped by Nas’s lyricism which comes off as unremarkable. The witty wordplay and vivid storytelling he is known for is absent, leading to a drawn out and forgettable album composed of mediocre material. The production sounds rustic, but not in the raw and charming way as Stillmatic. Instead, it sounds dusty, rough, and incomplete, with good ideas laced into every beat which go nowhere and feel underdeveloped. The potential of Street’s Disciple was incredible, which makes the end product all the more disappointing.
9. Hip Hop Is Dead (2007)
Hip Hop Is Dead is not the grand return to form like Stillmatic was after Nastradamus, but nonetheless, it’s a great album. The production is cinematic, embodying the hard-hitting sound Nas performs best on but with a modern flare. Nas is joined by a range of exciting artists on this album from Jay-Z on the excellent “Black Republican”, Snoop Dogg on the groovy “Play On Playa”, or Kanye West on the incredible “Still Dreaming”. The highlights are phenomenal, and the record as a whole remains consistent. The only issue I have with the record is “Who Killed It?”, a jarring departure from the rest of the album’s sound where Nas adopts an unappealing film noir detective’s voice as he looks into the mystery of who killed hip hop. It feels like a novelty track which interrupts the album’s cohesion and would have been far better released as a throwaway single or scrapped entirely. Overall, Hip Hop Is Dead does not reach the same heights as Nas’s best albums, but it’s still a great album with a plethora of exciting features and consistent rapping from Nas.
10. Untitled (2008)
Untitled is not a Nas album I revisit often, but that’s not to say it isn’t a quality record. The album has an especially strong beginning with “Queens Get the Money”, a drumless song where Nas raps over a simple piano loop, easing the listener into the album. Surprisingly, a lot of pop influence is injected into this album, with tracks like “Make the World Go Round” and “Hero” featuring these colourful synths prominent in pop music at the time. So much of the album is dedicated to racism, the fight against it, and hope for the future, making for one of Nas’s most powerful efforts lyrically. There aren’t many dull moments here, but likewise, there aren’t many I would consider some of Nas’s best, either. It’s a consistent album which is good enough while it’s on, but after it’s done, I’m not drawn back to it.
11. Distant Relatives (2010)
Distant Relatives is the unlikely collaboration between Nas and Jamaican singer-rapper Damian Marley. The production is warm and summery, with lots of Jamaican influence in the soft percussion and rich soundscapes. At times, the production doesn’t interest me, such as on “Strong Will Continue” or the monotonous melodies on “Friends.” Aside from those minor low points, however, the production can be gorgeous. As someone who isn’t a huge fan of Damian Marley’s voice, I’m left conflicted with this album. Many cite it as one of Nas’s masterpieces, and a beautiful addition to his discography. In some ways, I agree. “My Generation” is my favourite song on the album, with a triumphant chorus, beautiful verses from Damian and Nas, and added features from Lil Wayne and Joss Stone which elevate the song to new heights. But, for the majority of this album, I’m left underwhelmed. The production can be fantastic, and Nas puts in the effort, but for me, it just isn’t what I look for in a Nas album. I admire the versatility and confidence of Nas for attempting such a fresh sound, but personally, I lean more towards the crisp boom bap sound of Nas than the luscious production of Damian Marley.
12. Life Is Good (2012)
Life Is Good is a cult classic among Nas fans, and an album I wish I could love more. It has a grand, triumphant sound, prominent on the explosive opener “No Introduction” and the hard-hitting tracks which follow, “Loco-Motive” and “Accidental Murderers”. The album sounds like a celebration from Nas, looking back on his accomplishments and appreciating the place he is in. The confidence in Nas’s voice and the vividness of his writing makes for some phenomenal verses, but the production often doesn’t hook me like Nas himself does. For example, the beat on “World’s An Addiction” creates this ominous, worrying tone, but beyond that, it just sounds monotonous to me. After five minutes with few interesting changes in the production, I’m glad for it to be over. But worse than anything else on the album – and potentially Nas’s worst song ever – is the infamous “Summer On Smash”. Produced by Swizz Beatz and featuring Miguel, it’s Nas’s attempt at a club banger, and it sounds atrocious. The production sounds dated in its attempt to sound futuristic, Miguel’s breathy chorus is discomforting, and the terrible repetition of “Life Is Good!” during the hook is obnoxious. It’s an awful track in an otherwise solid album, but at the very least, it’s memorable. Aside from those issues, there are some gorgeous moments on Life Is Good. A great example is “Cherry Wine”, an elegant collaboration between Nas and Amy Winehouse. Furthermore, the upbeat “Bye Baby” ends the album on a hopeful note. While it isn’t perfect, Life Is Good has some fantastic moments, so I’m never afraid to revisit the album despite the issues I have with it.
13. NASIR (2018)
Six years after Life Is Good, Nas returned with NASIR, fully produced by Kanye West. This album had amazing potential, but the end result may be my least favourite Nas album. The production can be great at points and messy at others, showing signs that this was a rushed record. For a reason I find difficult to articulate, Nas doesn’t feel like the focus here, but Kanye does. There is no Nas verse which sticks out to me as particularly memorable, nor is there a hook that sticks in my head, but the production is emphasised at so many points that Nas seems more of an afterthought. “Bonjour” and “Cops Shot the Kid” are fine tracks, but I would never return to them over the numerous highlights from Nas’s other albums. NASIR, in its brevity, doesn’t give Nas the room to dominate, nor does it allow most of its tracks to develop properly. It feels like a Kanye West album featuring Nas – a rushed one, at that – rather than a Nas album produced by Kanye West.
14. The Lost Tapes 2 (2019)
The Lost Tapes 2 is a tolerable album which doesn’t reach the heights of Nas’s best works, nor does it reach the lows of his worst. For the most part, the songs are fine, with a diverse producer list featuring legends from RZA to Pete Rock who offer surprisingly tame and unremarkable beats. Tracks in the beginning such as “No Bad Energy”, “Vernon Family”, and “Lost Freestyle” feature some spacey and futuristic production, but the rest of the album is not so consistent. The middle of the album is a long stretch of subpar beats and forgettable verses, only picking up at the end with the triumphant “Beautiful Life”. The Lost Tapes 2 is an album rarely brought up in conversation about Nas, and that’s because there isn’t much to say. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either, leaving me feeling hollow and as if I had listened to nothing at all.
15. King’s Disease (2020)
In 2020, Nas teamed up with Hit-Boy for their first collaboration, King’s Disease. It’s Nas tackling a far more modern sound, dipping his toes in trap production but primarily rapping over the bouncy and bright beats Hit-Boy is known for. Nas raps alongside mainstream stars like Lil Durk, Fivio Foreign and Big Sean, taking him out of his comfort zone, with great results. Tracks like “Ultra Black”, “All Bad”, and “10 Points” are all so catchy but maintain that same substance Nas is known for – witty, vivid writing, and effortless flows. He sounds like he’s getting back in his groove again, so it’s natural the album isn’t perfect. Despite its flaws, though, it’s a promising start to the King’s Disease trilogy, and a second (or third?) wind for Nas.
16. King’s Disease II (2021)
The following year, King’s Disease II released, and improved upon its predecessor in every way. The production is less derivative, combining elements of boom bap with the modern polish of Hit-Boy’s work to create a nice compromise for the two artists. The album itself feels so much more cohesive, with each song given its time to breathe and all linking into themes of reflection, history, and music. There are a number of great artists featured such as Eminem on “EPMD 2”, Charlie Wilson on “No Phony Love”, and even Ms. Lauryn Hill on “Nobody”. The album feels like a step forward for Nas. He sounds much more comfortable on Hit-Boy’s production here than on King’s Disease, and with his improved performance comes better writing too. Nas’s lyricism is so captivating, discussing so many aspects of his past, his life, and his career. If Life Is Good is a celebration of the present, King’s Disease II is a reflection on the past, and a forecast on what the future will bring.
17. Magic (2021)
To the surprise of fans, Nas and Hit-Boy released a short and sweet album, Magic, just as 2021 was drawing to a close. While I expected it to be no more than leftovers from King’s Disease II, I was blown away. If you showed someone a track from Illmatic then one from Magic, I doubt they would be able to tell that Nas had aged twenty-seven years between them. On Magic, Nas sounds alive. His flows are relentless, and his energy is so fierce, as though he’s back on his debut, showing the world what he’s capable of. Hit-Boy’s production, too, is more exciting, full of heavy bass and sudden beat switches, making for an energetic and eclectic record. “Meet Joe Black” is one of my favourite Nas songs ever, with Hit-Boy and Nas complementing each other’s wild energy. Other notable highlights are the brilliant opener “Speechless” and the closer “Dedicated”, both of which feature incredible beat switches, and over which Nas continues to flow as though nothing changed. Magic is quick and concise, doing so much in such a short runtime.
18. King’s Disease III
After the one-two punch of King’s Disease II and Magic in the same year, expectations were higher than ever for Nas to deliver on King’s Disease III. Somehow, King’s Disease III improves upon both releases from the previous year, borrowing what made both albums so good and combining them into the best Nas album since God’s Son. King’s Disease III has the same substance and cohesion as II, but with the same fiery energy and vigour as Magic. From beginning to end, it is Nas at his very best. The Hit-Boy production is more glamorous than ever, with sparkling synths on “Hood2Hood”, crashing drums on “Ghetto Reporter”, and so many details on the layered instrumental of “Michael & Quincy”. Nas’s lyricism is elite, displaying that same creativity he had on It Was Written in the song “Beef”, where Nas raps from the perspective of beef, describing the divisions and tensions created by it. King’s Disease III is proof that Nas never had a prime. He has always been a master of his craft, but like any artist who has been making music for a long time, his consistency ebbs and flows. But when Nas is at his best, he is the greatest rapper alive.