Shape-shifting from Nasty Das to Escobar then Nastradamus, Nas eventually returned to his origin throughout his artistic evolution as a rapper and songwriter.
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Releasing 15 albums from his 1994 debut, Illmatic, his harder core “Nasty Nas” hip-hop that hit No. 1 and chronicled his earlier life and times growing up in the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York, Nas continued his saga on the 1996 follow-up, It Was Written—which expanded into his Nas Escobar persona living a Scarface-like existence—before closing out the decade on the third album I Am… and (third alter-ego) Nastradamus in 1999.
Nas’ powerful lyricism helped him dominate another hip-hop realm throughout the ’90s and one he has continued contributing to throughout the 2000 and 2010s with Street’s Discipline in 2004, his eighth album Hip Hop is Dead (2006), Life Is Good in 2012 and Magic in 2021.
Throughout his career, Nas’ collaborations span works with Missy Elliot, Sean Combs (Diddy), Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and others—he even co-wrote several tracks off Will Smith’s 1997 album, Big Willie Style, including co-writing Smith’s hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” which won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1999.
Among his countless collaborations and hundreds of tracks within his catalog, here’s a chronological look at 10 songs showcasing the deeper range of Nas’ songwriting.
1. “The World is Yours” (1994)
The fourth single off Illmatic, “The World is Yours” is a call out to the people of the Queensbridge projects, and the world at large, to get what they can out of this world. It’s there for the taking. Numerous artists have sampled the song, including Lil Wayne in “Presidents” and Jay-Z in “Dead Presidents,” among others. For the track, producer Pete Rock reworked a sample of Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 jazzier “I Love Music” into a piano-led instrumental following Nas’ blasting lyrics:
I sip the Dom P, watching “Gandhi” ’til I’m charged
Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin
To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement
It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine
Whose world is this?
The world is yours, the world is yours
It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine
Whose world is this?
2. “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994)
Another Illmattic track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” painted a harsher, gun-heavy portrait of life on the streets within two denser verses. Co-written with and produced by Chris Martin (DJ Premier), “N.Y. State of Mind” incorporates samples of Donald Byrd’s “Flight Time” and Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain.” Nas later recorded a sequel to the track on his 1999 album, I Am…, with “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II.”
Be having dreams that I’m a gangsta, drinking Moets, holding TECs
Making sure the cash came correct, then I stepped
Investments in stocks, sewing up the blocks to sell rocks
Winning gunfights with mega-cops
3. “I Gave You Power” (1996)
Nas hit the mainstream with his second album, It Was Written, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned him a Grammy nomination (Best Rap Solo Performance) for the single “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” featuring Lauryn Hill. It Was Written was also the first Nas album to feature his short-lived supergroup, The Firm, featuring Cormega, AZ, and Foxy Brown and Nas’ Escobar persona—inspired by the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. “I Gave You Power,” a more piano-dipped, jazz-fused track co-written with producer DJ Premier, tells the story from the perspective of a gun.
I seen some cold nights and bloody days
They grab and me bullets spray
They use me wrong so I sing this song ’til this day
My body is cold steel for real
I was made to kill, that’s why they keep me concealed
Under car seats they sneak me in clubs
Been in the hands of mad thugs
They feed me when they load me with mad slugs
Seventeen precisely, one in my head
They call me Desert Eagle, semi-auto with lead
I’m seven inches four pounds, been through so many towns
4. “Street Dreams” (1996)
Using an interpolation of The Eurythmics’ 1983 hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and from Linda Clifford’s 1979 soul single “Never Gonna Stop,” Nas’s “Street Dreams” featured a video inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1995 crime drama Casino. Featuring a cameo by Scorcese regular, the late Frank Vincent, who starred in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, the video was filmed around Las Vegas around the time of Tupac Shakur’s death.
A drug dealer’s destiny is reaching a key
Everybody’s looking for something
Street dreams are made of these
Shorties on they knees, for n—-s with big G’s
Who am I to disagree?
Everybody’s looking for something
5. “Nas is Like” (1999)
The first single from Nas’ third album I Am…, “Nas is Like” marked the sixth collaboration between Nas and producer DJ Premier, who also co-wrote and produced the track weaving in a subtle string arrangement. Peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, the video features Nas rapping in the Queensbridge projects.
Nas is like” Earth, Wind & Fire, rims and tires
Bulletproof glass, inside is the realest driver
Planets in orbit, line ’em up with the stars
Tarot cards, you can see the pharaoh Nas
“Nas is like” Iron Mike, messiah type
Before the Christ, after the death
The last one left, let my cash invest in stock
6. “Hate Me Now,” featuring Sean Combs as Puff Daddy (1999)
Originally composed for Foxy Brown by producer D-Moet, Nas took on “Hate Me Now” and called on Sean Combs, who was performing as Puff Daddy at the time, to join him on the second and final single off I Am… . The song can be interpreted as a call-out to all the Nas’ naysayers and critics.
Escobar Season has returned
It’s been a long time, been a long time comin’
Looks like the death of me now
But you know, there’s no turning back now
This is what makes me; this is what I am
You can hate me now, (Q.B.) but I won’t stop now
Cause I can’t stop now, (Bravehearts) you can hate me now
But I won’t stop now, cause I can’t stop now
You can hate me now, you can hate me now
7. “One Mic” (2001)
Co-written with James Mtume and Tyrone Gregory Fyffe, “One Mic,” off Nas’ fifth album, Stillmatic, samples a portion of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” and was featured in the 2017 documentary film The American Epic Sessions. The film chronicles the story of an engineer who restores a long-lost electrical sound recording system from 1925 and enlists 20 contemporary artists—including Willie Nelson, Elton John, Jack White, Alabama Shakes, The Avett Brothers, and Nas, among others—to record songs on it for the first time in nearly 80 years.
“It was just music, people expressing themselves with the sound at that time, and it had nothing to do with the video, it had nothing to do with anything but the song,” said Nas of the film, and the now-antiquated technology. “It shows me there’s so much more to do, there’s so much further I can go, but now I know the beginnings; this gives me the roots of all of it.”
Yo, all I need is one mic, one beat, one stage
One n—- front, my face on the front page
Only if I had one gun, one girl and one crib
One God to show me how to do things his son did
Pure, like a cup of virgin blood, mixed with
151, one sip’ll make a n—- flip
Writin’ names on my hollow tips, plottin’ shit
Mad violence who I’m gon’ body, this hood politics
Acknowledge it, leave bodies chopped in garbage’s
Seeds watch us, grow up and try to follow us
8. “I Can” (2002)
“I Can” is a Nas track with some lyrics safer for children’s ears. More motivationally driven, the song passes on the message that when you believe in yourself anything is possible. Released as the second single from Nas’ sixth album, God’s Son, the song peaked at No. 12 on Billboard Hot 100 and is the highest-charting song by Nas to date on the chart.
I know I can
Be what I wanna be
If I work hard at it
I’ll be where I wanna be
I know I can (I know I can)
Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)
If I work hard at it (If I work hard it)
I’ll be where I wanna be (I’ll be where I wanna be)
9. “Hip Hop is Dead” (2006)
Featuring will.i.am, who also produced the track, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” the title track off Nas’ eighth album, spoke to the commercialization and filtered down state of hip-hop music.
Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game
Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business
If it got where it started
So we all gather here for the dearly departed
Hip hopper since a toddler
One homeboy became a man then a mobster
If the guys let me get my last swig of Vodka
R.I.P., we’ll donate your lungs to a Rasta
Went from turntables to mp3s
From “Beat Street” to commercials on Mickey D’s
From gold cables to Jacobs
From plain facials to Botox and face lifts
I’m lookin’ over my shoulder
It’s about eighty n—– from my hood that showed up
And they came to show love
Sold out concert, and the doors are closed shut
10. “Daughters” (2012)
Off his 11th album Life Is Good, “Daughters” earned Nas Grammy Award nominations for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. Based on Nas’ own relationship with his daughter, Destiny Jones, the song reflects on fathers who question their own parenting skills and don’t have enough time with their daughters.
This morning I got a call, nearly split my wig
This social network said “Nas go and get ya kid”
She’s on Twitter, I know she ain’t gon post no pic
Of herself under dressed, no inappropriate shit, right
Her mother cried when she answered
Said she don’t know what got inside this child’s mind, she planted
(Photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)