Tonight, hip-hop legend Nas will be sitting down with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony Decurtis at the 92Y for a discussion on his lengthy, important and influential career. For over 20 years, Nas, with his innovative writing style and signature delivery, has contributed some of the most celebrated works in rap. From his lauded debut Illmatic through unforgettable singles like “Ether” and “Made You Look,” Nas’ presence in hip-hop is unmistakable. While they’ll have plenty of his critically acclaimed works to discuss, we thought this occasion would be a good time to discuss some stellar Nas performances that go far-too-often overlooked.
MC Serch featuring Red Hot Lover Tone, Nas and Chubb Rock “Back to the Grill Again,” 1992
Much has been written about Nas’ first recorded appearance on Main Source’s 1991 posse cut “Live at the Barbecue.” One of rap’s most dazzling debuts, Nas’ then-manager and former one-half of 3rd Bass MC Serch attempted to recreate the magic for his solo album’s posse cut “Back to the Grill Again.” A spiritual successor in both title and certain parallels in Nas’ verses (“When I was 12 I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus” seems to go hand-in-hand with “I’m waving automatic guns at nuns.”), it’s one of the few fleeting glimpses we have of an unrefined sinister Nas pre-Illmatic.
“One on One,” 1994
The same year Nas dropped his masterpiece debut Illmatic, he had a song on the surprisingly dope Street Fighter soundtrack. Also featuring new music from Ice Cube, the Pharcyde and LL Cool J, the hip-hop compilation justified its movie tie-in by referencing either the movie, the video game or the act of fighting in the street itself at some point in each song. Nas’ “One on One” is a cold exploration of how the introduction of weapons changes one’s life. Here, an unarmed Nas’ first verse is cut short as he gets robbed. The second verse follows Nas, now with a gun, confident and no longer suffering the same problems. The final verse abruptly ends early once the protagonist is ambushed and killed. “One on One” is a well constructed nuanced parable that manages to not be noticeably tarnished by the inclusion of the line “I brawl with Blanka / caught Bison in the thinker.”
Kool G. Rap featuring Nas –
“Fast Life (Norfside Remix),” 1995
While the original Buckwild-produced incarnation of the dream collaboration between Kool G. Rap and Nas is preferred by some for the track’s more conventional boom-bap aesthetic, Salaam Remi’s smooth remix adds a degree of cool that allows both MCs performances to be appreciated in a new light. The hyper-competitive nature of hip-hop doesn’t often allow for two legends as highly regarded as Nas and G Rap to even appear on a track together, but the fact that both feel comfortable enough to spend the third verse going back and forth speaks volumes as to how much these two thought of each other. Given one could (and often does) make a case for either artist being the single greatest to ever pick up a mic, their exchange in that final verse is the type of artistic climax that could only happen once a generation.
“Silent Murder,” 1996
When you consider how it will always be in the shadow of its predecessor, Nas’ sophomore album It Was Written might always dwell amongst the most underrated rap albums of all time. With a level of creativity (and budget) seldom seen even in golden era of major label rap releases, It Was Written remains an excellent release front-to-back. Of course, if you didn’t purchase the album on cassette, there’s something within that front-to-back that you may have missed. Produced by the Live Squad (who produced “Nothing to Lose” and “Strugglin'” for 2Pac), the ominous beat allowed Nas to effectively touch on the paranoia that comes with success, making it the (would be) perfect centerpiece for the album. Those of you hoping to re-create It Was Written as Nas intended shouldn’t just throw it at the end as a bonus track, but rather place it as the eighth track in between “The Set Up” and “Black Girl Lost.”
“Surviving the Times,” 2007
Career-retrospective rap is a vastly under-utilized sub-genre, perhaps because rappers tend to not have careers long enough to sustain a three-minute narrative. Lucky for us, Nas underwent enough twists and turns to produce one of the best ever recorded. “Surviving the Times” was released in 2007 as the fitting exclusive track for Nas’ Greatest Hits album. Produced by NBA All Star Chris Webber (and released during his final professional season), Nas not only illustrates his ups and downs, but chronicles the aspects of the hip-hop eras he’s lived though in a detailed but poignant manner without forgetting a single person along the way.