The Good, The Bad, & The Nasty: The Best, Worst, & Most-Underated Songs On Every Nas Album

We take a look at all of Nas' triumphs, missteps, and under-appreciated gems.

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Complex Original

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We take a look at all of Nas' triumphs, missteps, and under-appreciated gems.

This feature is a part of Complex's Nas Week, presented by Hennessy.


Come September 14 Nasir Jones will have been on Earth for 40 years, a lifespan more than half of which has been spent on record. Those who knew him as a teenage rapper spoke of him as some kind of urban monk: a young poet touched by divine wisdom. He released his debut album, Illmatic, at the age of 20, and was both blessed and cursed by the ensuing acclaim.

Even 20 years later Illmatic is still treated with a combative level of affection. To understand the reverence it commands in the hip-hop world you’d have to compare it to The Catcher In the Rye, or A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, or King Lear. The way some bloggers talk about it, you’d think it was all those things rolled into one.

And maybe it was. And maybe young Nas was a monk touched by the hand of God. But in the years that followed Illmatic, we also came to realize that he was a human being. Capricious, reckless, contradictory—he refused to become an idealized version of himself just because that’s what rap fans desired of him. Like anyone else, he was free to make mistakes, and he made a lot of them. But the fact that he infuriated so many diehard fans didn’t seem to bother him much, and that made us love him more. So let's look back at all of Nas' albums with clear-eyed vision and single out the classics, the duds, and the overlooked gems.

Written by Sam Sweet 

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Illmatic (1994)

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The Classic: "NY State of Mind"

“NY State of Mind” is the definitive Nas statement, a song so potent that if you took away everything else he ever recorded this alone would be enough to justify his legacy as an all-time great. There’s twice the verbiage per line as most rap tracks, and yet it feels that not a word has been wasted. Few songs on Earth exhibit a deeper respect for, or understanding of, the English language. If Nas had been writing novels about modern middle class life he’d probably be considered the great author of our time. As it happened, he composed rap songs about the worst neighborhood in one of one of the bleakest boroughs in America—a celebration of total darkness crafted with sublime style.

The Stinker: N/A

Illmatic isn’t just the one Nas album devoid of duds. It might be the only rap album devoid of duds. This is not only because Nas was in a divinely ordained state of creativity, but also because he possessed an elevated sense of artistic self-discipline. These days rap LPs are so bloated that a 10-song album would be categorized as an EP. Few figures in rap have shown the concision exemplified by Illmatic, which is part of what made Nas' subsequent indulgences so painful. Whether you’re a dealer or a musician, quality beats quantity every time. Illmatic is the living proof.

The Buried Treasure: "One Time 4 Your Mind"

It would be a misnomer to say there are any hidden gems on the most analyzed album in rap history, but there was always something about “One Time 4 Your Mind” that made it seem buried. Maybe it was simply overshadowed by all the towering classics that surrounded it. Maybe it got caught in that awkward backstretch of an album sequence. But none of that should permit “One Time 4 Your Mind” to be overlooked. On any other New York rap album of 1994, this would have been an outstanding classic. Only on album that consists of nothing but outstanding classics could it be mistaken for anything less.

It was Written (1996)

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The Classic: "The Message"

Upon its release, It Was Written debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, yet it was received as a severe letdown by fans of Illmatic. It has since come to be regarded by many as Nas’ second-best album. When Nas enlisted the Trackmasters to produce, many fans posited that the rapper was bidding for a slicker, more mainstream sound. While “The Message” may have had a colder, more closed-in feel than anything on Illmatic, the storytelling is stunning: “Got my gat back, time to backtrack/I had the drop so how the fuck I get clapped/Black was in the Jeep, watching all these scenes speed by/It was a brown Datsun, and yo nobody in my hood got one.” The song showed that Nas could rap over mechanized beats without ever becoming a mechanized rapper.

The Stinker: "Black Girl Lost"

On the other hand, of course, It Was Written contained songs like “Black Girl Lost.” Nas could unpack the psychology of a teenage gangster better than anyone. He could evoke the inimitable stench of a project stairwell using only his words. What he couldn’t do was talk about women in any convincing fashion. To select one sample come-on: “To see a prophecy, your ebony tone is lockin’ me.” The Velveeta-thick R&B chorus and heavy-handed moralizing proved beyond a doubt that quality control had flown the coop on this one.

The Buried Treasure: "Shootouts"

“Shootouts” suggested that Nas’ best songs and his most popular songs would never again be aligned the way they were on Illmatic. There is Illmatic-level artistry in “Shootouts” yet it was the kind of B-list song that seemed to disappear within the folds of It Was Written. For a moment, the Trackmasters put aside their slick machinations in favor of a deep Al Green sample. Because Green and other Memphis samples were a trademark of RZA’s production style, “Shootouts” aligned itself with the still burgeoning Wu-Tang aesthetic. The character studies in “Shootouts” could be seen as an extension of the stories found on Raekwon's Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah's Iron Man.

The Firm's The Album (1997)

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The Classic: "Phone Tap"

The Firm was deeply entrenched in several of the predominant rap tropes of the 1990s: the East Coast-West Coast conflict; the shift from the street lifestyle to the CEO lifestyle; the idea that albums should be assembled around a clique of famous emcees, the way a movie is cast with stars. Musically, The Firm's album is defined by the interplay between Nas’ densely verbal style and the stealthy, skeletal beats of Dr. Dre. That tension finds its peak on “Phone Tap.” The song was part of a new push to bring cinematic crime drama to rap music. By blending two very different bicoastal signatures, the song also did its part to heal a rift that had flared into warfare.

The Stinker: "Hardcore"

The Nas/Foxy Brown duet “Hardcore” felt like a misguided attempt to emulate the male-female chemistry that Biggie had generated with Lil Kim, or that Foxy herself found with Jay-Z. Unfortunately, that formula could not counterbalance the song’s canned production or lackluster lyrics. After starting a song by saying “Will they ever let Gotti out?” Nas goes on to drop a barrage of cringe-inducing couplets like: “Never love a ho, get my dick sucked/Smoke the chocolate.”

The Buried Treasure: "Firm Fiasco"

At its best, the Firm album used Dre’s minimalism to emphasize the intricacies of the New York Mafioso rap style. Only a few years prior, producers like Pete Rock and Premier made it almost compulsory for an artist of Nas’ talent to rap over dark jazz samples. Then came the throbbing automated beat of “Firm Fiasco,” and we got to hear rappers take turns dancing across the stainless steel surface of Dre's instrumental. This is one of the songs that ushered in a new era of luxury in hip-hop—both sonically and thematically.

I Am (1999)

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The Classic: "Nas Is Like"

I Am… announced a new peak of self-aggrandizement with its cover: Nas as an Egyptian pharaoh cast in solid gold. The single “Nas Is Like” was as lean and agile as “Hate Me Now” was grandiose. Nas’ best line served as a wild contradiction of the Egyptian affluence portrayed in the cover art: “But what's it all worth, can't take it with you under this Earth/Rich men died and tried, but none of it worked/They just rob your grave, I'd rather be alive and paid.”

The Stinker: "Dr. Knockboot"

“Dr. Knockboot” makes a good case why rappers shouldn’t be sex columnists. As if the conceit of a “Do’s and Don’ts of Sex” wasn’t corny enough, every piece of advice Nas offers is embedded with some sort of unsavory implication. Make sure to wear a condom—from “your local bodega”? Get a “confirmation before penetration”—or else she’ll lie about rape to steal your money? Hit the pussy—“if that shit’s blisterin’”? Thanks but no thanks, Dr. Nas.

The Buried Treasure: "Undying Love"

Because I Am… was conceived as a double album, there was an overflow of material, and just by virtue of sheer odds, there was plenty of gold mixed in with the scrap metal. “Undying Love” is one of several songs that shows Nas can flow over an acoustic guitar like no other rapper. This is also one of rap's most more poetic portrayal of being cuckolded: “I walked in through the back door entrance/Shocked it was unlocked, when I walked in, I smelled incense/Chased by a weed aroma, empty Guinnesses/And lipstick marks on like three empty Coronas/A pair of blue jeans on the carpet; size 12 Timberlands/Something swinging on the ceiling fan, I stopped it/Swinging slower and slower/On the last swing I saw it was a G-string and heard laughing…”

Nastradamus (1999)

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The Classic: "Project Windows"

“Project Windows” stepped away from the bombast of I Am…, and returned to the memories of the Queensbridge projects. As Ronald Isley provides an eternally tender murmur in the background, Nas delivers a verse that captures the simultaneous affection and horror that artists experience when they revisit their places of origin: “At night the windows were speakers, pumpin' life out/A fight, people screamin' ‘cause somebody pulled a knife out/So I look at this room, I'm hooked to this tune/Every night the same melody, hell sounded so heavenly/But jail was ahead of me, speeding like amphetamine.”

The Stinker: "Big Girl"

“Big Girl” deals with horror of a different kind. It’s the horror of having the person you most admire in the world walk into the room wearing the most lamentably trendy outfit imaginable. “I’mma wear this out,” says Nas to his listeners. “Please don’t,” we say in return. “Naw,” he says to the mirror. “I look good.” But he didn’t. “Big Girl” jumps on so many trends at once—a double-time Jay-Z flow, the off-kilter Ghostface-like crooning on the chorus—that it’s nearly impossible to locate Nas among all the personalities he’s trying to emulate. This was one of those moments where it felt like our most talented rapper might have given up on everything he was good at.

The Buried Treasure: "Shoot 'em Up"

Thankfully, the album also contained “Shoot ‘Em Up,” one of the best Nas songs of any era. Produced by Havoc—a fellow chronicler of Queensbridge—the song contains one of Nas’ classic accounts of a crime scene, full of details that flash by in an instant. It contains one of the best climactic closings to any rap song ever recorded: “My nine on his lips, his fifth on my chin, I start whispering/‘Put your gun down, we can skip town’/ Rocked him to sleep, pushed back his meat, lift off his chain/Took his shit, emptied out close range.”

Stillmatic (2001)

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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.”

The Lost Tapes (2002)

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The Classic: "Doo Rags"

While other rappers are content to churn out simplistic remembrances of “back in the day,” a song like “Doo Rags” showed that Nas refuses to revisit the past without including the essential underlying sorrow that flavors nostalgia. It’s not just the gently melancholy tone of this beat. It’s that Nas can’t simply reminisce on bygone hairstyles without allowing his mind to wander to other thoughts: about how “we were lied to, buying hair products/Back before my generation, when our blackness started disintegrating/Til awareness started penetrating.”

The Stinker: "Everybody's Crazy"

How does an agile rapper come up with a song as brain dead as “Everybody’s Crazy”? Perhaps Rockwilder’s beat is to blame. It feels like the song wants to run but it’s wearing sneakers with cement embedded in the soles. Even the clumsiness of the beat can’t excuse what may be the most blockheaded hook of Nas’s career: “Ladies love thugs and my thugs love hip hop/Thugs love ladies and ladies they love hip hop.” Those two lines alone were enough to threaten the memory of every nimble rhyme Nas had created in the preceding ten years.

The Buried Treasure: "U Gotta Love It"

By definition, The Lost Tapes was a collection of buried treasures. The qualities that forced these songs off of I Am… and Nastradamus are the qualities that make them worth revisiting. Take “U Gotta Love It.” It could never have been a single. It doesn’t demand attention; it has no flash. And yet it might the most compelling song of the collection, if only for the way the cloudlike beat appears to drift around the ironclad intensity of Nas’ prose: “Preposterous foes, finicky foul niggas/See niggas and blacks, there goes a loud difference.”

God's Son (2002)

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The Classic: "Made You Look"

“Made You Look” was the first song that revived the rowdy, cloudy vigor of the teenage Nas without simply aping the sound of the early 1990s. Salaam Remi is a sophisticated producer blessed with uncommon musicality. So when he opted to deliver Nas something as raw as “Made You Look,” the results had depth and dimension. It’s not simply a dope loop. Not since “Live At the Barbeque” had Nas jumped on a beat with this much gusto—like he was jumping onto a moving train car just as it reached cruising speed.

The Stinker: "Hey Nas"

If “Made You Look” harkened back to Nas in his lean and hungry prime, “Hey Nas” felt like an attempt to revive the most fallow period of his career: the late 1990s. The beat is canned, the hook is horrific, but the rhymes? By now we all knew that sweet talk was not Nas’ strong suit but even his deepest detractor never thought we’d hear him rhapsodizing about “tongue and hickeys.” To close, it must also be pointed out that this song boasts a couplet in which Nas rhymes “energy” with “energy.” Need more be said?

The Buried Treasure: "Get Down"

“Get Down” was the song for which we’d been waiting since “Hate Me Now” had obliterated any hope for subtlety in the career of Nasir Jones. Over a completely naturalistic and understated loop of James Brown's cushion-soft (yet street tough) “The Boss,” Nas showed that supreme nonchalance is the mark of a true master.

Street's Disciple (2004)

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The Classic: "Thief's Theme"

Five years after the original double album blueprint for I Am… was chopped up and sold for parts, Nas finally got to release the 26-song album of his dreams. Unfortunately, it was not anyone else’s idea of a dream. Street’s Disciple is more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book: There’s such an abundance of good and bad material that you’re welcome to mix and match according to your personal taste. That said, “Thief’s Theme” is a song that would make anyone’s short list. Over a heavy-fuzz interpretation of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (performed by the Incredible Bongo Band), Nas conjures a squall of felonious language.

The Stinker: "Getting Married"

For some reason, Nas thought it would be a good idea to use the same stream-of consciousness technique that propelled his crime narratives to talk about his marriage to Kelis, but the only criminal aspect of “Getting Married” is the idea that anyone wanted to hear about Nas’ wedding: “Maxwell gon’ sing, invited Lauryn Hill and the gang!” OK, dude, but we came for a rap song, not an episode of The Real Housewives of Queensbridge.

The Buried Treasure: "Sekou Story"

Buried deep in the midsection of Street’s Disciple is “Sekou Story,” the album’s best song and one of the most ingenious compositions of Nas’ career. Over a beat lifted from a 1988 track by the Dismasters, Nas spins a tale of a Miami drug kingpin before the song suddenly switches beats—and points-of-view—as the kingpin’s wife bursts onto the track with the news of her husband’s death, screaming “Who gon’ hold me down now?” It’s an incredibly bold, fully formed narrative that flashes by in less than three minutes: a disarming reminder of Nas’ innate acuity as a storyteller.

Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)

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The Classic: "Can't Forget About You"

The concept was an overblown, unnecessary gimmick for a rap album, but it also gave us songs that showed Nas was no longer straining to live up to his legend. “Can’t Forget About You” is both breezy and substantial—a rare song of contentment and acceptance from an artist who never seemed particularly content or satisfied. The song could have easily turned self-congratulatory but instead it feels sweet, a quality underscored by its golden-hued sample (from Nat King Cole!) and the lithe manner in which Nas delivers the hook: “Nas, the millionaire, the mansion/When was the last time you heard your boy Nas rhyme?/ Never on schedule, but always on time.”

The Stinker: "Who Killed It?"

Nas’ restless creativity and search for new ideas was admirable but hazardous. You need no further evidence than “Who Killed It?,” the song for which Nas made the executive decision to rhyme in the voice of the 1930s gangster movie star Edward G. Robinson—for the entire duration of the song. What could have been a cool concept for a single line became an everlasting train wreck.

The Buried Treasure: "Still Dreaming"

Produced by Kanye West, “Still Dreaming” is the sort of smooth and wholesome track that every fan wishes Nas made more of. It doesn’t feel overworked or overproduced. Instead, it has that off-the-cuff camaraderie—that sense that “we’re just rapping, let’s wing it”—that marked many of Kanye’s early productions. In two verses Nas conjures a tale of a duplicitous, drug-addicted female. For all its complexity, it’s the kind of story that Nas could conceivably improvise in a single take.

Untitled (2008)

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The Classic: "Queens Get the Money"

Nas wanted to call this album N****r, which was the only title guaranteed to generate more controversy than Hip Hop Is Dead, from two years earlier. Mercifully, the album began with a much more understated tactic. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Queens Get the Money” isn’t a rap song, but something better: A rapping song. No flashy beat, no hook, not even drums—just the sound of a great emcee doing the thing with his voice that he was born to do. Jay Electronica’s minimalistic track only serves to heighten the impact of this masterwork.

The Stinker: "Make the World Go 'Round"

In every aspect, “Make The World Go Round” is the polar opposite of “Queens Get the Money.” A bloated mess devoid of soul, the song commits a sacrilegious act by interpolating the Stylistics’ heavenly “People Make the World Go Round” into a song that can’t even be deemed glossy. It’s worse than glossy—it’s glossiness mashed up and reassembled and then shrink-wrapped and sold in a gaudy wrapper. In other words, a Chris Brown song in everything but name.

The Buried Treasure: "You Can't Stop Us Now"

There has never been a bad rap song based on the sample to the Whatnauts’ “Message From a Black Man.” The original is so spare and unflinching that rappers are forced to commit to its example of hushed authority. Nas’ first verse is essential: “Sip Moonshine, so-called coons, shines, and darkies/I love y'all/Pyramids to cotton fields to Wrigley Field/Forgotten men who did get killed.” In drawing a bridge between the horrors of black American history and the present-day heroes of hip-hop, Nas imparts to his fans a crucial lesson: You can’t fully appreciate the fruits from a tree unless you understand the depth of its roots.

Distant Relatives (2010)

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Life is Good (2012)

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The Classic: "Daughters"

With “Daughters” there was finally a song on which Nas’ casual fans and his cult followers could agree. The beat is big, but not bloated. The R&B element is sugary but not overpowering. Above all, Nas found a way to rap about his family life in a way that was as forceful and vivid as his crime narratives. The song is a letter from a grown-up player to his beloved daughter, but it’s never didactic. Rather than turn his message into a lecture, Nas turns his concern for his daughter’s well being into an opportunity to interrogate the choices he’s made in his own past. It’s a courageous statement, rarely seen in rap music.

The Stinker: "Summer On Smash"

There’s just no way to win with a phrase as corny as “Summer On Smash” and the rest of this song follows in the footsteps of its all-too-trendy title. Nas’ opening line—“Little overweight, hit the gym, let’s go get the abs in”—offers a second of hope that this could turn into a self-deprecating subversion of the typical summer rap jam, but no. It’s worse than the typical summer rap jam—smelly, sweaty, and overcrowded, just like a New York City beach in August.

The Buried Treasure: "You Wouldn't Understand"

For all its gloss, “You Wouldn’t Understand” has the glimmer and finesse that is so sorely lacking in “Summer On Smash.” A newly single Nas seems to be basking in his midlife moment, reliving the yacht-sized Mafioso dreams of the old days. “Now holla at a millionaire,” he says. “Rollie, Hublot and Audemar, deciding which one to wear/Who to screw, what to drive/550 with the cream guts inside.” From one of the original self-made rap millionaires, Nas provides a lesson to generation Facebook on how to blow old money with style. And what other rapper could fit the term “medulla oblongata” into his celebration of conspicuous consumption?

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