Two years ago, Kanye West tweeted a promise he made to President Barack Obama. The maestro of G.O.O.D. Music swore to provide beats for Nas' long-awaited new studio album. It’s was a peculiar oath to make, but as I type these words, that promise is in the process of being fulfilled. If what Kanye has been hinting is true, the still-untitled 11th solo studio album will be the first Nas project produced entirely by one producer. Following the favorable results of JAY-Z and No I.D.'s work on 4:44, elder statesman Nas and soul-chopping Kanye are a potential equation for an album worth the years of anticipation.
Nas has released 10 solo albums in a rap career that spans over 25 years. His immense catalog is home to unparalleled excellence, creative mistakes, and forgettable missteps—the discography of a rap genius whose imperfections presented the only proof that he wasn’t a rap god. One recurring ghost that has haunted Nas’ albums is a critique on his beat selection. It’s the kind of general consensus that became more troll than truth; constructive criticism turned an ongoing joke. The fact still remained.
No, Nas doesn’t have the golden ear of his contemporaries; he has been the best rapper over the worst production too often to be defended. Yet, being an extraordinary emcee has awarded each of his albums a care package of pristine production from GOAT contenders. It’s the strange balance of some of his lesser work; the inferior is always alongside the impeccable. The conundrum has been ongoing since at least 1999's I Am... album, but after years of scrutiny, the answer may prove to be one beatsmith directing from the helm. We will know Friday.
To prepare for the release of the new album, we've compiled a list of Nas' 10 best producer collaborators throughout the years. Each selected participant has produced at least three beats that can be found throughout his catalog.
Kanye may have the honor, but every producer mentioned is worthy of his own joint album with Escobar.
10. Dr. Dre
To say Dre is attached to far more fumbles than touchdowns when Nas is involved wouldn’t be completely wrong. Craig Jenkins included their historic “Nas Is Coming” collaboration on his Complex list of "Top 25 Rap Songs Ruined by Bad Hooks." To call The Firm’s 1997 The Album anything more than a blemish on both storied legacies is to overlook obvious shortcomings. Yet, there’s an interesting escape from normality brought by Dre’s beats. The third verse on “Hustlers” is a moment where Nas weaves in and out the pocket, dancing with the sharp violins in ways unexpected.
Dre always gave Nas beats that sounded like background music for The Godfather rather than How High. The haunting unorthodoxy of “Nas Is Coming” or the foreboding keys from “Phone Tap” display an unrealized potential between the two. With better direction, their music could’ve been so much more than what they failed to accomplish.
9. Kanye West
In the depths of Nas' discography, only a scant amount of Kanye West production appears. Their history dates back to an early Kanye placement on The Lost Tapes from 2002 and doesn’t go beyond Hip-Hop Is Dead in 2006, but the few that can be found all possess a pleasant tenderness.
Their first collaboration, the D-Dot-co-produced “Poppa Was a Playa,” is the soft foundation that comes with sampling Eddie Kendrick. The Chrisette Michele-assisted “Still Dreaming” has the gentleness of butterfly wings flapping underneath a spring sun.
There’s more knock to be found on the co-produced “Let There Be Light,” but the voice of Tre Williams keeps the record within the lineage of tranquil soul music. Nas and Kanye's inconsistent work history is made up of memorable deep cuts, and possibly a foreshadowing of the soft nostalgia that could become the foundation of their full-length effort.
8. The Alchemist
There’s a language spoken by Alchemist production that encourages Nas to be as sharp as a prison shank. Divine penmanship over a sample of Barry White's “I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” results in the rapper becoming a locomotive of lyrical elevation for the entire three minutes. It must be the loops; good loops are time machines. The dancing keys of “My Way” are what likely transported the Queensbridge emcee back to Ill Will’s burial, to the days when guns were tucked underneath his bed and wood benches left the residue of splinters.
Grandmaster Alch may only have a handful of records with Nasty, but each was able to conjure his celebrated ability to convey raw, poetic images as if a hip-hop Konami Code was used each time the two connected.
7. Chucky Thompson
“One Mic” is a masterpiece of audio cinema. What Chucky Thompson created isn’t the standard blank canvas, but a transformative image that moves in unison with Nas and his storytelling. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy how the two failed to turn this production style into a template. It’s the blueprint for a breathtaking gallery of musical genius. Chucky, who got his start as a member of the Hitmen—Diddy’s Bad Boy in-house creative collective—isn’t the most notable, but to dig through his buried deep cuts is to see a true craftsman of elegance. The poignant instrumentation for “Dance” mirrors the soul-bearing of Nas' tribute to his late mother.
Being able to present the right score to turn Nas' words into scenes from a movie is why Chucky Thompson should always be honored for his few, but classic contributions.
To survive and compete in Diddy’s era of shiny suits, Nas sought a tailor. The commercial transition from Illmatic to It Was Written wouldn’t have been possible without the production by Trackmasters. Some will say it was a pivot toward ruin, while others will argue the Brooklyn duo were the lead architects of a slept-on, sophomore classic.
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Nas and Lauryn Hill created a timeless record made possible because of the bassline from Whodini’s “Friends,” a sample most producers wouldn’t have sent Nas back then. Placing Kid Capri scratches over the looped guitar from Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” gave “The Message” a feeling of old-school nostalgia and modern flavor.
The duo wanted Nas somewhere new, but not far from home. That doesn’t mean he didn’t stray. Nas went full Bad Boy with “Hate Me Now,” an awkwardly triumphant anthem from 1999. Like most of the records from the Trackmasters era, the single is either considered a classic or an abomination.
5. No I.D.
No I.D. provided five of the 14 records that appeared on Life Is Good, Nas’ 10th solo studio album. Look no further than “Loco-Motive” as an example of No I.D. understanding the throwback New York griminess that fans desire to hear Nas wax poetics over. The ‘90s nostalgia is further captured on “Back When,” a simple, yet soulful loop that brilliantly samples MC Shan’s “The Bridge.”
No I.D.’s multiple placements didn’t all lean on the past, though: “Accidental Murderers” is brought to life due to its pipe organ and church choir; the beautiful “Stay” is in a world of its own, a beauty that merges jazz and soul for venting.
With just a few records, Kanye's mentor proved he could bring out the past, present, and future in Nas. Viewing the album through a retrospective lens, No I.D. should’ve been Life Is Good’s sole producer.
4. Salaam Remi
Salaam Remi’s first credited production on a Nas album is “What Goes Around” from the 2001 classic Stillmatic. When Nas received the instrumental, he told Salaam it was musically unlike everything else on his album. Their first collaboration produced a sound full of mood, color, and ingenuity, the very basis of what their artistic relationship would further blossom into. Salaam delivered superhero theme music that Nas manifested into the classic “Made You Look.”
How Salaam takes a James Brown sample and creates a musical bed of infectious funk gives “Get Down” a vibrancy that perfectly compliments the potent lyricism. This is the recurring beauty of their chemistry; every album following The Lost Tapes is filled with Salaam’s magic. He is one of a handful of producers who are the divine architects of the deep cuts that make hearing Nas’ entire albums a rewarding experience.
After the release of Illmatic, once the world heard “Life’s a Bitch,” Nas and AZ became to hip-hop what Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were following the publishing of On The Road. Their dual performance was a miracle of magnetizing lyricism. The duo had their second coming of unquestioned greatness seven years later on “The Flyest,” featured on Stillmatic. Both tracks are produced by L.E.S.; two classics with two Queensbridge comrades.
L.E.S. always found the right keys to stir from Nas moments like "Life Is What You Make It,” “U Gotta Love It,” and "Nothing Lasts Forever." Frank Ocean once said the best song isn’t the single, and throughout his time working with Nas, the records produced by L.E.S. rarely made it to the radio, but they would be helmed as the highlights on the albums.
2. Large Professor
The Nas we know would not be who he is today without rapper and producer Large Professor. He watched and helped groom Nas from artistic infancy to the wizard that wowed the hip-hop world in 1994. Illmatic, Nas’ classic debut, wouldn’t be a heralded masterpiece if you remove the fingerprints from the Flushing, Queens OG. If Midas was able to make gold out of whatever he touched, then glorious loops should be considered the touch of Large Professor. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” “One Time 4 Your Mind,” and “Halftime” are all hall of fame contenders.
It’s not just the work from Illmatic, but what came from. Both of Large Professor’s records that appear on Stillmatic are placed back to back; “You’re da Man” and "Rewind" are vastly different experiences that are both astounding and speech-stealing. Each time the two come together, the bar rises...
1. DJ Premier
Kanye can give Nas the greatest beats of his lifetime, and while praises are yelled, there will be whispers of "It should’ve been Premier."
It’s a fair desire.
One of the most famous verses written by poet Robert Browning is called "Pippa Passes." The lines that are often quoted state: "God's in his heaven — All's right with the world." That is the best way to describe the feeling that comes from Nas rapping over DJ Premier: God’s in his heaven. “N.Y. State Of Mind" is Nas in his sanctuary. “I Gave You Power” is Nas in his Eden. To hear “2nd Childhood” is to know all is right.
Their collaborative catalog is as are perfect as you can be in an imperfect world.
By Yoh, Y.O.H. State of Mind, aka @Yoh31