“I’m the young city bandit, hold myself down singlehanded. For murder raps, I kick my thoughts alone, get remanded. Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne.”
Nas is the greatest emcee ever to bless a microphone. This, my friends, is a fact. Sure, there may have been artists who have sold more records; who have experienced more mainstream success; or even who have had a bigger impact, e.g., Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. But there is not an emcee – living or deceased – who has ever been better at “emceeing” than Nas.
So what does the term GOAT mean to you? For purposes of this article, I ask you to consider: (1) Lyrical content; (2) Influence; (3) Catalogue; and (4) Longevity. On this set of criterion, there can be no other choice – Nas wins.
“I’m taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow. My rhymin' is a vitamin held without a capsule."
Nas dropped Illmatic – arguably the greatest hip hop album of all time on April 19, 1994 – more than twenty-five years ago (Note: If you remember when it was released, you are old). The world was much different: Bill Clinton was the POTUS; federal minimum wage was $4.25 per hour; and Forrest Gump was still in theaters. I was in middle school and was beginning to fall in love with music – just as my dad had done some thirty years prior. The lyrical content, production and overall feel of Illmatic is unprecedented. It perfectly depicted the Black experience. That is what it was like to be Black, poor, and oppressed, while also being confident, relentless, and resistant.Total synergy. Each song is a mini-movie. You can envision and feel each musical bar. Case-in-point: “My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails. I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real. Word to Christ, a disciple to the streets, trifle on beats. I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace.” Nas wrote those bars as a teenager – let that sink in.
Music that is truly classic stands the test of time. As a child, my dad listened to James Brown; The Temptations; and many others. Although I was not born when these artists were at their respective peaks, I loved their music from the moment I first heard it. Just like Illmatic, this music is timeless. I have visited many cities across the country and have frequented bars, clubs, music halls, hole-in the walls, etc. Anytime I have heard Illmatic, the crowd response is always the same – the hip hop “head nod.”
“I was Scarface, Jay was Manolo. It hurt me when I had to kill him and his whole squad for dolo . . .”
From the beginning of civilized society, our society has loved battles. There is something inside of us that loves the spirit of competition. People seem to dislike, or even discount the importance of a battle when held between adversaries on uneven footing. For example, Floyd Mayweather – a man who is one of the greatest boxers ever – is criticized for never having a worthy adversary. This is not his fault, but it has cast a shadow over some of his accomplishments. In the same way Ray Leonard needed Hagler, Jay-Z and Nas needed each other. They needed A one-on-one battle to the death. Even before they eventually clashed, I found it odd that Nas and Jay-Z had not recorded a record together. They were widely considered the best in the NY city, yet no collaborations. So when they started hurling subliminal shots at each other, I was not nearly as surprised as other folks.
By the summer of 2001, the gloves were off and the unofficial war filled with subliminal jabs had given way to all-out war. Jay-Z performed “Takeover” during Summer Jam 2001. This was a heavy duty shot that landed on Nas’ chin. But what ensued later was the greatest collection of counter punches recorded in the history of hip hop. The crowned jewel of the responses is Ether – the greatest diss song of all time. When I first heard this song, I was sitting on the stoop with a few of my friends in front of North Spencer Dorm (one time for my UNCG folks!). Some random guy pulled up to the stoop. Think, how Ilena’s cousin from Menace to Society crept out of his house to address Caine. He asked us if we had heard Nas’ new track (mind you, this dude was a complete stranger, but that underscores how big this release was to the culture). We must have listened to the track five times in a row. Through a series of diss records, and responses, Nas dropped “the Last Real Nigga Alive,” and with that song, he put the nail in Jay-Z’s coffin. He had won the biggest battle in hip hop history; and he was the clear King of NY; and he had released another classic album, which is arguably his second-best album ever.
Queensbridge leader, no equal I come from the wheel of Ezekial to pop thousand-dollar bottles of scotch, smoke pot and heal the people.”
Since his debut in 1994, Nas has dropped 12 solo albums. In 2012, at the age of 39, Nas dropped another classic album (Life is Good) – nearly 20 years after Illmatic. Make no mistake: hip hop is a young man’s sport much like the NBA and NFL. So, it is significant that Nas dropped a classic at damn near 40 years of age. It is the equivalent of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant winning an MVP trophy at the same age. It is basically unheard of, and I feel confident saying Life is Good is the best hip hop album released by a person over the age of 35. This album received critical acclaim from just about anyone with a pulse. It was felt by the 20-somethings as well as 70’s babies, which is no small feat.
To conclude: Nas has the best hip hop album in the history of hip hop; he has influenced peers and foes and the younger generation alike; his catalog of work speaks for itself; and, in terms of longevity, he just released a new album in late 2018 – nearly 25 years after his debut. For all of these reasons, Nas is the GOAT.
- Sidney Minter, Blogger