Nas was only 20 when he released his debut but he was already a master in the art of storytelling. Nobody captured the creeping menace of life on the streets like this lyrical prodigy from New York's Queensbridge projects. With spotless beats from Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and lyrical assists from Q-Tip, the album has a no-bullshit concision that fits its stark subject matter, and quotable lines like "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," got Nas tagged as the next Rakim. Everyone was on point. Even guest rapper AZ, who never had much of a career, delivered like Domino's on "Life's a Bitch": "We were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters/But something musta got in us, cuz all of us turned to sinners." It was the dawn of a hard new era.