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The 10 Best Rappers of the '90s Ron Galella Collection /Getty

3. Nas

Solo Albums: Illmatic (1994), It Was Written (1996), I Am... (1999), Nastradamus (1999)
Group Albums: The Firm: The Album (1997) with The Firm
Biggest Hits: "It Ain't Hard To Tell" (1994), "The World Is Yours" (1994), "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)" f/ Lauryn Hill (1996), "Street Dreams" (1996), "Hate Me Now" f/ Puff Daddy (1999)

If 18-year-old Nasty Nas had done nothing more than show up at Large Professor's recording session one night and start poppin' shit about "waving automatic guns at nuns," "snuffin' Jesus," and so forth, he would still warrant some sort of mention in a compendium of the decade's greatest MCs. But his scene-stealing verse on Main Source's 1991 b-side "Live at the Barbeque" was nothing but a warning shot. The following year Nas got in the studio with Large Pro, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, L.E.S., and Q-TIp to create a modern masterpiece know as Illmatic.

Nearly 20 years after its release, Nas' debut album still looms large over hip-hop. Aside from exerting a profound influence over an entire generation of rappers, Nas' rhymes are studied as serious literature in universities around the world. As he pointed out in "The World Is Yours," all the words pass the margins in his book of rhymes. More to the point, his books of rhymes helped to ensure that hip-hop would never be marginalized.

 

According to conventional wisdom, Nas fell off after Illmatic, unable to live up to the promise of his stellar debut. But also, in retrospect, its follow-up shrugs off some of the slings-and-arrows that it suffered back in '94.

 

According to conventional wisdom, Nas fell off after Illmatic, unable to live up to the promise of his stellar debut. There is no disputing the fact that Illmatic is a bona fide classic, having earned a rare five-mic rating in The Source at a time when the publication was truly considered the bible of hip-hop. But also, in retrospect, its follow-up shrugs off some of the slings-and-arrows that it suffered back in '94. Produced by Trackmasters with supervision by Nas' then-manager Steve Stoute, It Was Written struck a perfect balance between artistic ambition and commercial appeal. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart on the strength of the single "If I Ruled The World" featuring another of the '90s greatest rappers, Lauryn Hill, and went on to sell four million copies on the strength of strong songs like "The Message" to "Street Dreams" to "I Gave You Power."

By this point Nas was firmly established as one of hip-hop's most important figures. His other two major releases of the decade were less consistently excellent that what came before, but both had moments of sheer brilliance. Nas slays Dr. Dre's skeletal beat on "Phone Tap" from The Firm's 1997 set, which helped usher in the era of mafiosos rap. And Nas's much-maligned 1999 solo album I Am... boasts bangers like "Nas Is Like," "Hate Me Now" featuring Puffy, and "Favor for a Favor" featuring Scarface. Perhaps Nas's quality-control meter was not quite set to Illmatic levels on records like "Dr. Knockboot," or on the entire Nastradamus album, his final release of the decade. But by that point, he had more than secured his spot as one of hip-hop's most important voices. —Rob Kenner 

RELATED: 50 Things You Didn't Know About Nas

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