Born Nasir Jones, son of jazz musician Olu Dara, Nas dropped out of school in the eighth grade, trading classrooms for the streets of the rough Queensbridge projects, long fabled as the former stomping ground of Marley Marl and his Juice Crew as immortalized in 'The Bridge'. Despite dropping out of school, Nas developed a high degree of literacy that would later characterize his rhymes.
At the same time, though, he delved into street culture and flirted with danger, such experiences similarly characterizing his rhymes. His synthesis of well-crafted rhetoric and street-glamorous imagery blossomed in 1991 when he connected with Main Source and laid down a fiery verse on 'Live at the Barbeque' that earned him up-and-coming notice among the East Coast rap scene. Not long afterward, MC Serch of 3rd Bass approached Nas about contributing a track to the Zebrahead soundtrack. Serch was the soundtrack's executive producer and had been impressed by 'Live at the Barbeque'. Nas submitted 'Halftime', and the song so stunned Serch that he made it the soundtrack's lead-off track.
Columbia Records meanwhile signed Nas to a major-label contract, and many of New York's finest producers offered their support. DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Pete Rock entered the studio with the young rapper and began work on Illmatic. When Columbia finally released the album in April 1994, it faced high expectations; Illmatic regardless proved just as astounding as it had been billed. It sold very well, spawned multiple hits, and earned unanimous acclaim, followed soon after by classic status.
The two years leading up to Nas' follow-up, It Was Written (1996), brought another wave of enormous anticipation. The ambitious rapper, who had begun working closely with industry heavyweight Steve Stoute, responded with a significantly different approach than he had taken with Illmatic: where that album had been a straightforward Hip Hop album with few pop concessions, the largely Trackmaster-produced It Was Written made numerous concessions to the pop-crossover market, most notably on the two hit singles, 'Street Dreams' and 'If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)'. These singles -- both of which drew from well-known songs, Eurythmics' 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' and Kurtis Blow's 'If I Ruled the World', respectively -- broadened Nas' appeal greatly and awarded him MTV-sanctioned crossover success. This same crossover success undermined some of his Hip Hop credibility, however, and a minor backlash by purists resulted.
Nas addressed his critics on 'Hate Me Now', the second single from his next album, I Am (1999). The effort had originally been planned as a double-disc concept album comprised of autobiographical material, but when some of the tracks were leaked, I Am was scaled down and released as a single disc, with the DJ Premier-produced 'Nas Is Like' chosen as the lead single. Besides 'Nas Is Like' and 'Hate Me Now', which both broke into the Billboard Hot 100, 'You Won't See Me Tonight' and 'K-I-S-S-I-N-G' also charted as singles. Originally scheduled by Columbia as a follow-up album comprised of the pirated material from the I Am sessions, Nastradamus (1999) -- released in time for the holiday shopping season, roughly six months after its predecessor -- was instead comprised almost entirely of new material, recorded quickly to meet the late-November release date. The album failed to garner the abundance of critical praise that had become customary for Nas. Moreover, unlike its two predecessors, Nastradamus failed to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart, peaking at number seven instead, and failed to go double platinum. Though relatively disappointing on these counts, Nastradamus still went platinum and spawned two charting singles, 'Nastradamus' and 'You Owe Me', so the album wasn't a failure, just disappointing.
In the late-'90s wake of the Notorious B.I.G.'s assassination, Nas reigned atop the New York rap scene alongside few contemporaries of equal stature. In addition to his endless stream of hits by the industry's most successful producers -- 'If I Ruled the World' (produced by the Trackmasters), 'Hate Me Now' (Puff Daddy), 'Nas Is Like' (DJ Premier), and 'You Owe Me' (Timbaland), among others -- he co-starred in the Hype Williams-directed film Belly (1998) alongside DMX and contributed to the soundtrack.
Furthermore, Nas led a short-lived supergroup of New York rappers known as the Firm (also comprised of rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature, with producers Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters) and assembled a broad coalition of fellow Queensbridge rappers for theQB Finest compilation (2000). Amid all of this publicity, though, criticism began to mount. For every crossover fan Nas won with his dramatic MTV-aired videos, he lost support among purists, some of whom felt he had sold out, abandoning Hip Hop ideals in favor of commercial success. The relative disappointment of Nastradamus was symptomatic of this downturn.
A series of incidents in 2001 provided a key turning point for Nas' decline. The rapper's personal life was becoming increasingly complicated; he encountered relationship trouble with the mother of his daughter and, of greater consequence, his mother began suffering from cancer. To make matters worse, longtime rival Jay-Z pointedly dissed Nas on 'Takeover', the much-discussed lead-off song from his acclaimed Blueprint album (2001). (It didn't help that Jay-Z had risen atop the New York rap scene, giving him ample justification to call out Nas, who had receded from the public eye while he dealt with his personal issues.)
Nas responded strikingly in December 2001 with Stillmatic, the title a reference to his classic Illmatic album, which had been released nearly a decade earlier. Stillmatic opened with the song 'Ether', a very direct response to Jay-Z, followed by the aggressive lead single 'Get Ur Self A....' These two songs in particular rallied the streets while the moving video for 'One Mic' received heavy support from MTV. Throughout 2002, Nas continued his comeback with a number of guest appearances, among them Brandy's 'What About Us?', J-Lo's 'I'm Gonna Be Alright', and Ja Rule's 'The Pledge', as well as yet more news-making controversy, this time involving his no-show at popular radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam.
Amid all of the drama, Nas managed to salvage his esteemed reputation and reclaim his lofty status atop the New York scene. Stillmatic earned immediate acclaim from fans and critics alike and sold impressively, while Columbia furthered the comeback campaign with two archival releases, one of remixes (From Illmatic to Stillmatic), the other of outtakes (The Lost Tapes , which notably includes some of the pirated I Am material). Then at the end of the year Columbia released a new studio album, God's Son (2002), and Nas once again basked in widespread acclaim as the album sold well, spawned sizable hits ('Thugz Mansion', 'Made You Look', 'I Can'), and received rampant media support. Two years later Nas returned with Street's Disciple (2004), a sprawling double album that delved deeply into various issues, most notably politics and his impending marriage to Kelis. The two-sided 'Thief's Theme'/'You Know My Style' single dropped in summer 2004, several months before the album's release, and was followed that fall by the proper lead single 'Bridging The Gap'.
Street's Disciple came and went, however, without the level of commercial success that had become customary, as it struggled to go platinum. More troubling, new kid on the block 50 Cent took a swipe at Nas on 'Piggy Bank', a call-out song on The Massacre (2005), further bringing the veteran rapper's status into question.
In a surprising turn of events later that year, Nas made a surprise appearance at Jay-Z's much-hyped I Declare War concert in October 2005. Together the two rivals performed 'Dead Presidents', Jay-Z's 1996 debut single; the classic song, produced by Ski Beatz and featured on Reasonable Doubt (1996), features a prominent sample of 'The World Is Yours', a 1994 classic by Nas. The reconciliation of Jay-Z and Nas opened the door to a deal with Def Jam. The record label, overseen by Jay-Z as president at the time, signed Nas and, in turn, released Hip Hop Is Dead (2006). The album didn't sell especially well, but it did inspire a lot of commentary about the state of Hip Hop and included a much-anticipated collaboration with Jay-Z, 'Black Republican'. A politically charged self-titled album, at one point considered to be titled N*gger, materialized in 2008, and not without some controversy of its own. Following his divorce from Kelis, Nas released Distant Relatives, an album-length collaboration with Damian "Junior Gong" Marley, in 2010. Two years later, his divorce would be addressed on the venomous Life Is Good, an album that featured Nas holding Kelis' wedding dress on the cover.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
Hip Hop Is Dead is not Illmatic. Illmatic stands as one of the most impressive debuts in rap music, and consequently has set up inevitable, and often unfavorable, comparisons with each of Nas' subsequent releases. And so it is practically a given that the two albums in fact do not compare, that the beats, the rhymes, the insight, the flow Mr. Jones had on Illmatic have not been duplicated here, and in all honestly, probably never will. Nas himself seems aware of this -- though he would never admit it -- as throughout the record he references the MCs, the producers, the DJs who made the music what it was and what it is today, many of whom were releasing material in the early '90s, when Nas first made a mark. He himself is one of them.
The statement that "hip hop is dead" is clearly meant to be controversial, and was, as rappers and rap fans alike exploded into debate after Nas declared it to be the title of his next album. But it's also a statement that the MC doesn't completely adhere to. He flip-flops between declaring that it has already gone, to warning of its imminent departure, to promising "to carry on tradition," to resurrecting it. But these inconsistencies don't come from contradictions in Nas' beliefs; rather, they stem from the fact that his biggest problem with Hip Hop has nothing to do with current talent, but what Hip Hop itself has become -- how it's magnified from an art form, from a way the ghetto expressed itself, into a commercialized, corporate entity that Nas himself is part of, something about which he feels more than a little guilty. This is most openly addressed on "Black Republican," which appropriately features an equally guilty (in terms of both improving and commercializing rap music) Jay-Z, who spits out better lines than anything he did on Kingdom Come. The track, which ingeniously samples "Marcia Religiosa" from The Godfather II (a film that, in many ways, parallels Nas' ideas about Hip Hop as it deals with the dark side of making money and the problems that befall an overly zealous pursuit of the always crafty American Dream), finds both MCs lamenting the state of the genre while also acknowledging their own participation -- and enjoyment -- of what it's given them. "Black Republican" is an understanding and admittance of hypocrisy, and this sentiment continues in "Not Going Back" and "Carry on Tradition," the latter in which Nas rhymes, "We used to be a ghetto secret/Can't make my mind up if I want that/Or the whole world to peep it." Nas enjoys the fame, but he also realizes that it has hurt the very thing he loves most, his "first wifey."
Yet Mr. Jones is not completely blaming himself for Hip Hop's demise. In fact, he gives more of that responsibility to those who don't respect it, who don't know its originators, and he takes stabs at them more than at himself (he did release Illmatic, after all). He's also willing to ease up on his criticism and rhyme in more general terms, although it is these tracks (specifically "Still Dreaming" and "Hold Down the Block," but much of the second half of the album as well) on which he loses some of the intensity and intelligence that he displayed earlier in the record. Still, he's able to regain his strength by the end, bringing together the East and West Coast on the Dre-produced "Hustlers," which features a great verse from the Game about trying to decide between buying Illmatic or The Chronic and being the "only Compton ni**a with a New York state of mind." Nas finishes up Hip Hop Is Dead with the spoken word piece "Hope," which, despite its seeming simplicity, shows off his indelible flow, how he raps as easily as he talks. Consciously or not, listeners are reminded that there's a reason he was the one who made Illmatic, and why it, and therefore Nas himself, will continue to be held in high esteem.
Words: Marisa Brown
Never averse to getting the pants of others in a twist, Nas said in 2006 that what developed into this self-titled album was, at the time, titled the six-letter version of the "N" word. The following year, the NAACP buried the five-letter version (along with each variant, as the obituary states) at a Detroit ceremony, replete with a horse-drawn carriage, a casket, and the presence of "Hip Hop legend Curtis Blow" , according to the NAACP press release. Whether it is believed that the word was truly placed six feet deep or merely swept beneath the proverbial rug, the word, regardless of its last syllable or the context in which it is placed, still carries a lot of power. Millions of Def Jam marketing dollars could not have ensured as bright a spotlight on their artist. All he had to do was mention the one word as an album title. And from that moment until the album's release, through each leaked track, mixtape, and article tracking the status of the album, more attention was paid to the MC's moves than in the recent past. An album with a proposed title of, say, East Coasta Nastra, would not have been anticipated with nearly as much scrutiny or speculation.
That's Nas' ex-wife Kelis' wedding dress on the cover: she's a fellow recording artist, the two have a kid together, and she wasn't consulted about the album cover or the album itself. Life Is Good is that kind of album, and for the moment, Nas is that kind of guy. He may have recorded some game-changing albums early on, and his recent collaboration with Damian Marley, Distant Relatives, was vital as well, but this puff-chested bitch session is a completely different animal, coming off as Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, although this one prefers playing to radio over playing it as landmark disc, and prefers swaggering over staying on topic. Know that he's willing to take all the credit for his own Illmatic here, too, boasting that he's the best in the game before shooting insults at easy targets and his ex-wife/father-of-his-children, who never should have left because as "Roses" states, "I'm an ass magnet." This trashing without rebuttal is worth arguing about, and snarky and vicious aren't admirable qualities, so the best way to approach this unfiltered carpet bombing of love and marriage is thinking about how heartbreak can make a man go cold (808s & Heartbreak) or in this case, irresponsibly start fires. Well-funded fires, too, as Swizz Beatz's "On to the Next One" soundalike "Summer On Smash" gives Nas a bona fide club killer, and when it comes to headlines, that's the late Amy Winehouse on "Cherry Wine" in one of her last recordings -- on a track as intoxicating as its namesake. Don't let that vicious guy on the cover know that a woman also assists on the album's other truly rich moment, with Mary J. Blige in top form on "Reach Out," while Rick Ross winds up the album's top thug thanks to "Accident Murderers," a majestic street track with No I.D. on production and a reference to Illmatic's Jerome character, even when bringing that one up is sticky, seeing as Life Is Good isn't even in the same ballpark. Still, Nas doesn't seem to care, putting a Jim Jones-styled blast of boss talk called "Nasty" on the same album he pulls the heartstrings on with the well-written personal number "Daughters," but he sells it all, delivering everything here as if its classic status was assured and will never fall into an embarrassment trap, as long as the cover art isn't brought into the debate. If the game needed Illmatic, this is the one Nas needed to get out of his system, acting as a clearinghouse for all venom and bile, plus some gloss that doesn't fit but needed to go as well.
Words: David Jeffries
Some pretty good street tracks to bump in your car. N****z Done Started Something is definitely the best song on the album. I Shot Ya (remix) probably the most popular song on the album. I never was really feeling the whole Roc-a-Fella fam at the beginning, but listening to them now, there was a reason why they had Jay-Z's backing. Not sure who produced those tracks, but I could just listen to them all day. I like the the fact that Def Jam brought some b-side tracks. It's better than havin' songs like Party Up Here, Jesus Walks, Hard Knock Life, Bring the Pain on a compilation for the umpteen time. Ft DMX, LL Cool J, Peedi Crakk, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Young Chris, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Ja Rule, Beanie Sigel, EPMD, Cam'Ron, Method Man.
I've had such a great time selecting, compiling and mixing this latest album. I've come at it from a Club DJ perspective and consequently, more than any other year, the AMP 2012 Compilation is a direct reflection of my DJ sets. On CD 1 you'll find all the tunes i've been playing out over the year. There is a nod to moombahton and trap, some drum and bass, some hip hop and lots of big house tunes from the likes of Madeon, Porter Robinson and Calvin Harris.
CD 2 is more deep, reflecting my never ending obsession with house and garage music! I am so happy to have some soul and hip hop on there too from 3 of my favourite artists of the year Drake, Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky. Last but not least, for the first time, we have commissioned new and original music for the compilation courtesy of young Irish producer MMOTHS, super-talented Liverpool producer, and DJ, Melé, and girl-boy R&B loving duo AlunaGeorge. We have represented all three acts over the year in terms of Free Music Mondays and AMP live events so it feels right to have brand new, exclusive music from them on the compilation. Very honoured too!