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The 10 Best Rappers of the 2000s

9. Nas

Albums Released Between 2000-2009: Stillmatic (2001), Lost Tapes (2002), God's Son (2002), Street's Disciple (2004), Hip Hop Is Dead (2006), Untitled (2008)
Classic Mixtape: N/A
Group Albums: N/A
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "I Can," "Hip Hop is Dead," "Made You Look," "One Mic"

Picture this. You're the most anticipated new artist in hip-hop. You drop a flawless first album with production by some of the greatest sonic architects in NYC's hip-hop hall of fame. You're a high-school dropout being hailed as a genius. But before you can bask in your glory the whole rap landscape shifts. No more sneaking an uzi on the island in your army jacket lining—suddenly everybody's on the road to riches and diamond rings.

So you regroup with a get-money manager and a pair of producers who've mastered the art of building hit tracks. You mess around and drop a chart-topping sophomore album. Yet even as you start to stack paper most of your friends from around the way are still packing heat and slinging stones. Meanwhile your goodfellas are lobbing subliminals, measuring the duration of your reign at the top of the rap game, and judging it to be short, like leprechauns. (Leprechauns!)

From those to whom much is given, much more is expected. Such was the dilemma faced by Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones. Beset by his own brilliance, the bard of Queensbridge wasted no time trying to improve upon his miraculous debut, Illmatic—often hailed as the greatest rap album ever made. After the success of his smash sophomore album, It Was Written, Nas's catalog was plagued by inconsistency. Despite moments of brilliance, The Firm, I Am…, and Nastradamus were hit-and-miss affairs. Blame it on rampant bootlegging or lack of focus, but the bottom line was that one of hip-hop's most eloquent artists was adrift. The video for "Hate Me Now,"his last great single of the 1990s, showed Nas being crucified, an eloquent image that spoke to the young MC’s world view. But the next chapter of the Nas legend would contain some major plot twists.

 

By the dawn of this millennium, hating on Nas had become a rite of passage in certain circles of the hip-hop intelligentsia. According to conventional wisdom, he had squandered his gifts, dumbing down his lyrics to chase the paper that was raining down on a street culture that had morphed into an entertainment industry.

 

By the dawn of this millennium, hating on Nas had become a rite of passage in certain circles of the hip-hop intelligentsia. According to conventional wisdom, he had squandered his gifts, dumbing down his lyrics to chase the paper that was raining down on a street culture that had morphed into an entertainment industry. Nas became exhibit A for posturing purists. All this finger-wagging left him in an unfamiliar place: low expectations. The effect was liberating.

He opened the decade by returning to the source of his strength, the Queensborough projects where it all began. Best remembered for the hit single “Oochie Wally” featuring the Bravehearts, the album also boasted “Da Bridge 2001,” a QB posse cut including Marley Marl, MC Shan, Capone, Mobb Deep, Nature, Cormega, Tragedy Khadafi, and Millennium Thug. Nas’s song-closing verse provoked “This music mogul rollin with a hundred soldiers,” setting the stage for hip-hop’s next epic conflict: his battle with Jay Z.

On 2001’s “Takeover” Jay Z went in on Nas (and to a lesser extent, Prodigy), naming names and airing out a long-simmering rivalry. Nas responded with “Ether,” a song that returned him to the mystical “ghetto monk” mode that so captivated listeners from the outset. Loyal fans may disagree over who won the battle, but there is no question that Nas’s 2001 album Stillmatic marked a return to top form. Aside from “Ether,” a song Nas no longer performs, the album contained the hit single “One Mic,” which saw chart success without compromise. The lyrics were “pure, like a cup of virgin blood.” Although he would later reconcile with his nemesis, eventually signing with Def Jam while Jay was president of the label, the conflict served reinvigorated Nas’s competitive spirit.

Four months after releasing Stillmatic, Nas watched his mother lost her battle with cancer. The pain from the loss fueled his next album, God’s Son—his best work of the decade, one of the best albums of his career. Producer Salaam Remi made bangers like “Get Down” and “Made U Look,” the hardest record to date. “You’re a slave to a page in my rhyme book,” he declared over a knifed-up version of the “Apache” breakbeat, supremely confident in his powers. Another Remi joint from the album, the Beethoven-sampling, children's-chorus-employing “I Can,” went on to become the biggest hit of Nas’s career.

Moving from strength to strength, he followed up with The Lost Tapes, a collection of unreleased gems that got lost along the way. The richness of songs like “Doo Rags,” “Poppa Was a Playa,” and “Fetus” offered a revisionist version of Nas’s artistic development. His output over the rest of the decade included the double album Street’s Disciple, which, sure, could have benefitted from a tougher edit. Still, “Thief’s Theme” and “Bridging the Gap” featuring Nas’s father, jazz hornsman Olu Dara, stand strong among the MC’s best work.

 

22 years after his debut on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," Nas remains one of the most compelling and divisive artists in hip-hop. His career can be read as a parable of hip-hop's greatest possibilities as well as its liabilities.

 

In 2005, Nas collaborated with Damian Marley on “Road to Zion,” a single from Jr. Gong’s smash album Welcome to Jamrock. Their creative chemistry would bubble up again in 2010 on the collaborative album Distant Relatives, setting the stage for Nas’ next don’t-call-it-a-comeback moment, the triumphant album Life Is Good.

The much-derided concept albums Hip Hop Is Dead, which was nominated for a Grammy, and Untitled, which Nas planned to title Nigger until Def Jam balked at the last minute, were defiant creative gestures that, once again, suffered from inconsistency despite moments of brilliance. “People afraid of criticism," he raps on on the latter's former title track “N.I.G.G.E.R (Slave and the Master). ”But I always put myself in a sacrificial position..." Who else but Nas would pose such provocative questions so fearlessly? “They say we N-I-double-G-E-R/Much more/But still we choose to ignore the obvious/We are the slave and the master.” The image speaks to the apparent contradiction between the artist's inner "Esco" and the gravitas of "Nastradamus."

22 years after his debut on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," Nas remains one of the most compelling and divisive artists in hip-hop. His career can be read as a parable of hip-hop's greatest possibilities as well as its liabilities. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore Nasty Nas. He remains incomparable, irrefutable, and indispensable. —Rob Kenner (@boomshots)

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