The Best Nas Lyrics, Every Year Since 1991
On July 29, DJ Khaled dropped Major Key, the first album of his career to hit #1 on the Billboard 200, as well as one of the most notable albums of summer 2016. One of the most celebrated of the fourteen tracks was “Nas Album Done,” a blistering return to form for the Queensbridge, New York legend, who dropped two impeccable verses over a “Fu-Gee-La”-sampled banger produced by 808-Ray and Cool & Dre.
When Khaled took to his Instagram last week to announce the pending arrival of the song’s accompanying video, it reminded me of an undeniable fact: for an artist often pegged as inconsistent, Nas has steadily dropped fire for 25 years and counting. His longevity and topical variance clearly outweigh any duds, and his classic lines, verses and albums are nearly unrivaled.
Ahead of the “Nas Album Done” video, we look back at some of Nas’ best - often overlooked - prose and flows from the past two-and-a-half decades.
Song: “Live At The Barbeque”
Album: Breaking Atoms
Artist: Main Source
Producer: K-Cut, Sir Scratch, Large Professor
Verbal assassin / my architect pleases / when I was twelve / I went to hell for snuffing Jesus / Nasty Nas is a rebel to America / police murderer / I'm causing hysteria / my troops roll up with a strange force / I was trapped in a cage / and let out by the Main Source
Simply one of the very best debuts and guest verses of all-time, Nas went on to sample his breakthrough guest appearance for “The Genesis,” the opening track from his classic debut Illmatic in 1994.
Song: “Back To The Grill”
Album: Return of the Product
Artist: MC Serch
Finesser / keep a Tec-9 in my dresser / lyrical professor / keep you under pressure / mind like a computer / the inserter / paragraphs of murder / the nightclub flirter / this is Nas, kid / you know how it runs / I'm waving automatic guns at nuns
Nas teamed up with future business partner Michael “MC Serch” Berrin for another classic guest verse - this time produced by Todd “T-Ray” Ray.
“The original version had maybe eight rappers on it. I told ‘em, ‘Whoever does the best is gonna get on the record.’ So we did a whole version with Akinyele and everybody on it, and Nas just destroyed it! So Nas, in a sense, won the position and he got on the record. It was literally a recording battle.” - T-Ray
With no known material from 1993, Nas was hard at work crafting his April 1994 magnum opus Illmatic.
Song: “One Love”
So I comes back home / nobody's out but Shorty Doo-Wop / Rolling two phillies together / in the Bridge we call 'em oo-wops / He said, “Nas, niggas caught me busting off the roof / So I wear a bulletproof and pack a black tre-deuce” / He inhaled so deep / shut his eyes like he was sleep / Started coughing / one eye peeked to watch me speak / I sat back like The Mack / my army suit was black / We was chilling on these benches / Where he pumped his loose cracks
Produced by contemporary legend Kamaal Ibn John “Q-Tip” Fareed, the above-quoted verse served as inspiration for the infamous coming-of-age bonding scene in the 1998 film Belly starring Nas.
“Q-Tip used to come and hang out with me in my projects from time to time. I remember him coming out there and hanging out, and I remember him letting me hang out at his session when he was working on Midnight Marauders. I thought he was just the most incredible, so to have him producing my album, for him to even do the chorus for me is a blessing.” - Nas
Song: “Verbal Intercourse”
Album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...
Through the lights, camera and action / glamour glitters and gold / I unfold the scroll / plant seeds to stampede the globe / When I'm deceased / by then the beast arise like yeast / To conquer peace / leaving savages to roam in the streets
The origination of the Nas Escobar moniker, Nas dropped another classic guest verse noted for being labeled the #3 verse of all-time by The Source Magazine in 1998.
“He came to the Island, boom, we set up, we was at RZA’s crib. Next thing you know, he just up in there vibin’, RZA’s on his RZA shit: hair out, dirty Timberlands on, eating noodles and all that, ordering mad pizza. Now we hear the ‘Verbal Intercourse’ beat, and I’m like, ‘This the track I want you on.’ He was with it, but he didn’t know what rhyme to spit. So I’m like, I’ma play the A&R role right now. ‘Go in the booth, do what you want to do.’ He was just throwing different occasional rhymes and all of that. The next thing you know, I heard the ‘Through the lights, camera and action’ and I was automatically like, ‘Stop! Do that one right there!’” - Raekwon
Song: “Take It In Blood”
Album: It Was Written
Producer: Top General Sounds, Lo Ground, Live Squad
Earth, Wind and Fire / singing reasons why I'm / up early / trustworthy is a .9 that bust early / sunshine on my grill / I spill Remy on imaginary graves / put my hat on my waves / Latter-day Saints / say religious praise / I dolo / challenge any team or solo / you must be bugging out / new to my shit / home on a furlough
As a victim of his own classic debut, It Was Written is often overlooked as a classic in it’s own right - containing cinematic production matched with a wider world view born from the success of Illmatic. The wordplay in this particular scheme was a preview of Nas’ expected greatness.
Song: “Calm Down”
Album: Calm Down / Capone Bone
Producer: Ez Elpee
Everybody has their ups and downs / but this one kid had stayed rich / while we slang the grave shifts / “I’m tired of it!" / said a cat whose name I'ma leave anonymous / ‘cause he might take it as some kind of diss / anyway / he saw him driving up inside the projects / tried to stick him / but he got bodied in the process / the victor had become the victim / thought he had a smooth nigga caught / but a smooth nigga licked him
One of several collaborations with fellow Queens, New York legends Kiam Akasi “Capone” Holley, Victor “Noreaga” Santiago, Jr. and Percy “Tragedy Khadafi” Chapman IV. Released the same year as The Firm The Album, “Calm Down” never gained the shine it deserved due to Nas associate Eric “E Money Bags” Smith being left off the original incarnation of the song.
“He come in the room. It’s mad niggas in the room. He like ‘Yo, what up?’ So I was like ‘Yo, what up?’ He said ‘Why you took me off the record?’… I’m like ‘Yo son, your verse is wack.’ Peep this though. Peace be upon him, real nigga though. He said ‘No doubt.’ And kept it moving.” - Tragedy Khadafi
Smith dropped his own solo debut In E-Money Bags We Trust in 1999, with features from Noreaga and Nas before being murdered in 2001, in an apparent revenge slaying ordered by Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.
Song: “Grand Finale”
Album: Belly OST
Producer: Lil Rob, Irv Gotti
Thug faces / fugitives running from court cases / slugs shooting past for the love of drug paper / Queens cap peelers / soldiers / drug dealers / and God'll throw a beam of lightning down ‘cause he feel us / may the next one strike me down if I'm not the realest
Joined by Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins, the three male leads from the film Belly - Nas, Earl “DMX” Simmons and Clifford “Method Man” Smith - created the “Grand Finale” track with another standout flow from Nas.
Song: “It’s Mine”
Album: Murda Muzik
Artist: Mobb Deep
Shit is better than a novel / autobiographic / spit it on tracks / it becomes classic / start some / make my heart pump / spark one / I’m God’s son / NAS-tradamus / last one to blast one when the NARC's come / ‘know how to leave anything in thirty seconds’ / when you feel the ‘Heat’ coming / and flee with the murder weapon
Certain artists consistently brought the best out of Nas (AZ, Large Professor, DJ Premier), including Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep, who featured the emcee on their second release The Infamous… before bringing him back for Murda Muzik, their fourth full-length release. The duo went on to release a straight-to-DVD film under the Murda Muzik moniker, which included Nas in a feature role.
Song: “Let My Niggas Live”
Album: The W
Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
I hear murder plans / from dopefiends with elephant hands / snots in they nostril / the blocks is hostile / there's no pots to piss in / Glocks is spittin’ / rocks cooking / underground bodies stiffen / cops look at bird shit / drop on the window pane / the oxygen is cocaine / it drove lots of men to die with no name
After sharing several tracks with various Wu members, Nas and the Clan finally linked up for an official posse cut, albeit on Wu’s feature-heavy, unbalanced November 2000 album. Despite the lackluster album as a whole, Nas brings a terrific flow heavily-filled with his trademark raw imagery.
Song: “You’re Da Man”
Producer: Large Professor
Your arms too short to box with God / I don't kill soloists / only kill squads / fame went to they head / so now it's, "Fuck Nas" / yesterday you begged for a deal / today you tough guys / I seen it coming / soon as I popped my first bottle / I spotted my enemies / tryna do what I do / came in with my style / so I fathered you / I kept changing on the world since "Barbeque"
This is hands-down one of my top five favorite Nas songs of all-time, featuring beautiful imagery and a vulnerable insight into an artist previously thought of as “lost.” Nas released Stillmatic in December 2001, and returned to critical acclaim after gaining creative inspiration off his infamous beef with Jay-Z.
Album: God’s Son
Producer: Saukrates, Agile
I bet you there's a Heaven for an atheist / it’s hard taking this racist planet / where they take a younger brother in a hand-cuff / even if he innocent / “Nigger, get on the car! Put your motherfucking hands up!" / thinking I'ma lose it / my mom's in chemo / three times a week, yo / keep trying, but people / it's hard / and God, your young soldier's not sober / but needs you / this world's my home / but world, I will leave you
A slept-on Nas classic, the MC attacks the sparse production with vigor, motivated by the then-recent passing of his mother Fannie Ann Jones, police brutality, spirituality and insecurity while flowing with precision.
Song: “Too Much For Me”
Album: The Streetsweepers, Vol. 1
Artist: DJ Kay Slay
Producer: Dream Team
Never caught in last year’s garments / holsters under armpits / chauffeurs and the charms lit / and a coat is holding on the Don's wrist / she got the Ill Will chain on / turquoise boots saying ‘God's Son’ / this the theme song
A somewhat off-year for Nas, he joined New York city hip-hop pioneer Keith “DJ Kay Slay” Grayson for the first of his two Streetsweeper series releases. The standard R&B track ultimately led to the falling out between Nas and Kay Slay:
“Nas had some kind of altercation with the label and didn’t want to come to the video. Fuckin’ dude would not come to the video shoot, yo…That’s when me and him fell out. And then I start to find out that to a lot of people that he was close to, this was somewhat like a pattern. Shit ain’t been the same, man. I ain’t still mad at the nigga like that because I’m a grown man. I ain’t into carrying shit like that throughout my life. But I ain’t ever gonna forget that. That was some real wack shit.” - DJ Kay Slay
Song: “Sekou Story”
Album: Street’s Disciple
Producer: Salaam Remi
A year go by / the nigga was fly / Prada shoes / a lotta jewelry / stayed high / got a call / he's in N.Y. / needs a couple of G's 'til tomorrow / I dips by / for a season where he's at / greets me with a smile / told him / "Here, keep that" / next week got a call from his wife / said somebody done took son life
One of Esco’s very-best tracks from a creative and storytelling perspective, Nas also interpolates a pattern from his own “One Love” for this song - an incredible lyrical display told from Nas and ‘Scarlett’, his female hip-hop alter-ego.
Song: “We Major”
Album: Late Registration
Artist: Kanye West
Producer: Kanye West, Jon Brion, Warryn Campbell
I heard the beat and I ain't know what to write / first line / should it be about the hoes or the ice? / fo-fo's or Black Christ? / both flows'd be nice / rap about big paper / or the black man plight
Nas joins Kanye West for a track off his triple-Platinum certified second studio album, which also features Warren “Really Doe” Trotter. In August 2015, West would reveal the praise for “We Major”:
"‘We Major' is like Jay's favorite song on the album. When something is so good, you can't deny it...When you hear the horns on 'We Major,' and you hear the chorus come in, and Nas - in original-form Nas, Nas like that - that can sometimes warm somebody's heart. Even Jay standing up in this position. Good music can break through anything and maybe start to break down a wall between two of the greatest MCs we have." - Kanye West
Song: “Can’t Forget About You”
Album: Hip Hop Is Dead
It's the end 'cause the game's tired / it's the same vibe Good Times had / right after James died / that's why the gangsta rhymers ain't inspired / heinous crimes help record sales / more than creative lines / and I don't wanna keep bringing up the greater times / but I'm a dreamer / nostalgic with the ‘State of Mind’
Sneakily referencing his Illmatic classic “N.Y. State of Mind,” Nas created “Can’t Forget About You” with Chrisette Michele, the New York soul singer also featured on the Jay-Z track “Lost One” in the same year.
“I’m from Long Island and all of my cousins are from Brooklyn, so for me to be able to tell them that I was on Jay-Z’s album, I finally got that credibility from them I’d been looking for. And Nas is the best rapper; who doesn’t want to be on the best rapper’s album? Now I’m not only credible, I’m cool. It felt right being on camera with Nas. Their swagger is totally different. Jay is more cocky, “I’m the ish.” Nas is more, “I’m the ish and I don’t have to say it.” - Chrisette Michele
Song: “Surviving The Times”
Album: Greatest Hits
Producer: Chris Webber
Tragedy / he used to come through all the time / I’m talking Juice Crew / not what the word defined / he had a sister named Erin / for sure was fine / that was my first crush / I bought my first mic / I wrote my first verse / I was about nine / I was about mine / fantasize house buying
Another one of my personal favorites from his prolific catalog, Nas takes the opportunity to provide some historical context to his rise to fame amidst true hip-hop legends and veterans.
“It’s crazy, because when I talk about people from a whole other rap era, I don’t know if people understand how much that meant to me, just coming up around legends like Kool G Rap and Eric B and Large Professor and people like Akinyele who was around in the early stages that I met through Large Professor from a rap group named Main Source that most cats today never even heard of.” - Nas
Album: The Untitled / N
Producer: Polow Da Don
From .9 Berettas and moving raw / to chilling in wine cellars / sticks and humidors / that's what I call mature / that's what I call a G / that's what I call a pimp / that's what I call a gangsta to the fullest shit
The only single from the notorious N album which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went on to become certified Gold. A motivational, high-energy track which personified Nas’ transition to a wiser veteran MC.
Song: “Too Many Rappers”
Album: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Artist: Beastie Boys
Producer: Beastie Boys
I'm broader than Broadway / I was the project hallway / dual tape recorder / lacing oratorials all day / I'm just getting started on this beat / this is foreplay
A pairing nearly twenty years in the making, the legendary Beastie Boys trio featured Nas on their “Too Many Rappers” track; the song went on to become nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 52nd GRAMMY Awards.
“It was one of those things, like we gotta do something together some time. We asked, Nas got back to us and did it, like the true professional he is. To be completely honest we sent him the track, he sent us his vocals, then we put our vocals onto it. So we weren’t in the studio at the same time, but we hung out with him afterwards. Hopefully the song sounds like we were all in a room together, though we were not.” - Beastie Boys
Artist: DJ Khaled
Producer: The Inkredibles, DJ Khaled
Hottest girls flew from Rio / mojitos mucho frio / my libido / sex so strong / without the E, though / hollow threats / we don't see those / higher death toll whenever we roll / that process is pivotal / my pitiful poverty-struck criminals will get at you / then we lounge in a Spanish-style house / ‘til it all blows over / Dolce Gabbana'd out
Harkening back to his Esco persona, Nas kills this John Legend-assisted track - one of several collaborations with DJ Khaled.
“I was on the final deadline with Nas for my last album. He’s a special kind of artist you know–so you wait for Nas no matter what. He loved the concept of that record. At first, Jadakiss and Game were going to be on it, but I thought about it for a few days and decided to tell him just to go in do whatever he wanted with it. I told him to catch the Holy Ghost on that one, and he did! Truthfully, I didn’t even have the time to try and wait for Jada and Game to get their verses in. Nas finished that one in the very last hour, and it came out classic. The chorus alone on that one is a movie.” - DJ Khaled
Song: “Rich & Black”
Album: Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
Producer: Sean C & LV
Verse two gotta be all murder / like the first verse / Timbs yellow like the hair on a Malibu surfer / yellow like my Harry Winston glistening arm, B / yellow like New York City piss-stained concrete
A short but nuanced guest appearance, the “Timbs yellow like the hair on a Malibu surfer” line made this verse-and-a-half feature a must-listen.
“Me and Nas, we always been friends since the beginning of our careers, so… We happened to meet up. We was in probably Germany. And, we always have our little conversations on the side about the respect that we have for one another’s craft, and the respect for one another’s brotherhood. And I knew he was going through a lot, so I didn’t take it to the length that he wasn’t there for me. I just told him that we can’t be putting our fans in the situation to where they feel like me and you have a problem. So he understood it, and he respected it. And he knew that I was working on the next project, and by Allah’s hand, he put it together for us. He made it happen. Nas sent something to one of my people’s and was like, ‘Yo, this is for Rae. If Rae wanna do it, let’s do it.’ And you know me, automatically I’m thinking for the respect, I’m thinking for the fans, I’m thinking for guys that always wanted to see this shit happen… we was able to make it happen, man. All praises due to Allah. He put us together to give it to y’all. It was a mixture; it was a collaboration thing. And we just went in there and hammered it the way we knew how to hammer it. He definitely had a lot of input on it, and I just followed suit.” - Raekwon
Song: “Accident Murderers”
Album: Life Is Good
Producer: No I.D.
Violent adolescents / homicidal with weapons / not a lot of knowledge inside of they minds / that I'm guessing / tell me who you impressing / shooters I knew them when they was babies / I used to test them / make ‘em throw up they hands / choke 'em out playing wrestling / watch ‘em grow to a man / I see them now they repping / but they cold-blooded, homie / wondering where the respect went / can't play with these little niggas / gangsta little niggas / can't hang with these little niggas / they're killing / they're reckless
One of Nas’ finest verses in his entire catalog, Nas rejoined past collaborator Ernest Dion “No I.D.” Wilson and recruited William Leonard “Rick Ross” Roberts II for the fourth song off his eleventh and final studio album for Def Jam Recordings.
Song: “Free (Remix)”
My boy just came home from serving three years / his girl loves someone else / and he fears / he’s gonna do something else to someone / to put himself back in the trap / ‘cause he couldn't adapt / and the streets / only in jail he feels free / it’s so sorry
Nas joined the London-based drum and bass quartet Rudimental and singer Emeli Sandé for the remix of their Australian quadruple-Platinum single.
“When we had that sent over to us, we all had a bit of a moment. I literally shed a tear. We were in the back of our tour bus in Australia and I was sat there just listening to it; it was unreal.” - Rudimental
Song: “The Season”
Artist: J Dilla
Producer: J Dilla
Nas and Dilla beat / the fly soliloquy / some real nigga talkin' / this don't happen too often / take precaution / liars and frauds got you exhausted / you've been accosted / who told you I'd lost it? / I just put it down for a second, damn
Nas joined a litany of MC’s to jump on a posthumous Dilla track when it was too late to create an original pairing. One of the best cuts from the brilliant Donuts, Nas recreated “Gobstopper” in October 2014, before longtime associate Anthony “AZ” Cruz did the same the very next month.
“Dilla’s name been in my ears for years. I caught on late, while he was passing. I never met him, may the Almighty be pleased with him. His joints been important.” - Nas
Producer: Scram Jones
Hear these niggas talking / who they talking to? / I ascended from Heaven / I can walk on the moon / everybody a killa / guess everybody a goon / not every Don is a Don / ‘til a Don walk in the room
Two of the very best to ever claim New York, Nas joins Jadakiss with a viscous flow and razor-sharp lyrics.
“That’s my favorite line from Nas on this song. It’s hard. That’s real talk. You feel like you’re that dude, until that dude step in the room and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ And Nas is one of them - his presence is always like that. I felt him 100% on that line.” - Jadakiss
Song: “Nas Album Done”
Album: Major Key
Artist: DJ Khaled
Producer: 808-Ray, Cool & Dre
I'm playing chess with babies / niggas is nursery / niggas impersonating / rehearsing me / nothing like me / I'm the first of me / and that's quite certainly
Nas wets the appetite of hip-hop fans everywhere with the aptly-titled “Nas Album Done” and drops two verses of significant fire - once again reminding us all he's an all-time top MC who has never lost his step.
“Khaled hit me up and said that he wanted to do this and we had planned some studio days to sit down and we cleared some studio days just to go over records. He knew exactly what he wanted. He had a couple of ideas, but the one we put out, that was the one he really wanted. I texted Ms. Lauryn Hill to ask her if she was cool, she said she was cool. She signed off on it, she gave me the approval. I don't have the rest of the Fugees' phone numbers, so I hit Salaam Remi who worked with the Fugees and he signed off on it. I just wanted to get her blessing and we were good. All we're doing now is plotting when we're dropping.” - Nas
By Matteo Urella, a Boston-based writer. Read more of his work at Medium.
Art Credit: HipGrassHopper