The Classic: "One Mic"

When Stillmatic was released all attention went to “Ether,” the song in which Nas attempted to take down “Gay-Z and Cockafella Records.” In truth, the beef was boring and rather than inciting Nas, the conflict seemed to inhibit his overall creativity. The album is better defined by “One Mic,” which felt like the opening of a new stage in the rapper’s career. The verses are great but it wasn’t so much about the lyrics as it was the pulse of the song. Has there ever been a rap song that built tension and released it in such an extreme fashion? He ranges from a scream to a whisper at the end of every stanza. Each time Nas incanted the refrain—“All I need is one mic”—it felt like an affirmation and a reminder to self: when my ambition gets cacophonous, the simplicity of my art will anchor me.

The Stinker: "Braveheart Party"

“Braveheart Party” was so terrible that Mary J. Blige asked to have it removed from subsequent pressings of Stillmatic. The label said it was at the behest of Mary J. Blige, who cited “personal reasons.” But we all know what that means, right? Why would the queen of hip-hop soul—or anyone else, for that matter—want to live with this blemish on her personal record? In the highly flimsy landscape of early 2000s New York rap, this might be the flimsiest track of them all.

The Buried Treasure: "2nd Childhood"

“2nd Childhood” is an absolute rarity: A rap song about the necessity of growing up. One area where hip-hop's always had trouble is maturity. Too often rappers conflate wisdom with an inflated sense of seriousness or grandiosity. In a culture predicated on youthful fashion, only Nas had the presence of mind to end a character study with this line: “With young dudes it's them he wanna be like/It's sad but it's fun to him—right?/He never grew up, 31 and can't give his youth up.”