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Nas: My Life in 20 Songs

From before ‘Illmatic’ to ‘Life Is Good,’ the storied Queens rapper looks back on two decades of music

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Nicole Fara Silver

“It’s like I gave myself a 40th birthday present 20 years ago.”

Nas has been in a reflective mood of late, performing an extended victory lap to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut album Illmatic. The Queens rapper is hardly one to exploit nostalgia—2012’s candid, stunning Life Is Good mainly eschewed reminiscence for a snapshot of the rapper’s life as he neared 40—but with most MCs’ shelf lives measured in months, two decades is a feat worth celebrating.

“It gives me a reference piece to look at myself and for me to analyze my life and what I’ve come from; my accomplishments; my dreams,” Nas tells Rolling Stone about his acclaimed debut. Today, the rapper releases Illmatic XX, featuring a remastered version of the album alongside an extra disc of rarities, demos, remixes and live performances. A tour is in the works where he’ll perform the album front-to-back, and the upcoming feature-length documentary Time Is Illmatic, detailing the album’s history and legacy, will open the Tribeca Film Festival. The rapper is also working on the pilot for Street Dreams, his upcoming autobiographical drama for Xbox.

Nas is also channeling this reflective period for a planned new album, which he’s started recording and hopes to release by the end of the year. “I have not been inspired to record until riding this Illmatic parade,” he says. “I didn’t know that this would inspire me, but this time has made me reflect and made me aware of where I am today. I think I could have put together a good new album without this 20-year anniversary, but I don’t think it would have nowhere near the depth that I think it’s going to have now.”

But before any new material is heard, Nas walked us through his thought process and state of mind behind 20 of his most introspective songs. Some are classics. Some never got their due. But all show a “graphic classic song composer” laying bare insecurities, victories, fears and triumphs.

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“Live at the Barbeque”

Main Source’s Breaking Atoms (1991)

I specifically meant for that verse to spark my whole existence in rap music, so I approached it that way and I felt like, “This is it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so I went for it.” I had the feeling in my head, so I wrote it right there on the spot. I think it was in [Queens recording studio] Power Play. It was pretty quick.

I still got rejected by a lot of record labels after that. But they should have [rejected me]. This was toward the end of probably the best rap music has ever been, so you couldn’t just walk and get on like that. For me, [getting signed then] may have been a year too early, but if it worked out right, it would have been really great for them as well. It was a very serious business and a very serious thing back then. But my three dream labels at the time were Cold Chillin’, Def Jam and Columbia.

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“Halftime”

Illmatic (1994)

That was the first song I recorded for Illmatic once we started, so "Halftime" was a perfect song for me to let go to a soundtrack. [The song was originally recorded for the Zebrahead soundtrack in 1992.] The idea behind it was that it was like intermission for rap music because something new is being introduced. There’s a performance happening in "Halftime" that has nothing to do with the game; it’s music that has nothing to do with the game. I knew I was onto something and I knew it would go over well. You just know. But of course, you don’t know how far you will go over well or how many people will receive you the way you’d like them to.

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“Life’s a Bitch”

Illmatic (1994)

You got to credit [guest rapper] AZ with that, you know? Each record [on Illmatic] was an extension of the last record. That just went off. "Life’s a Bitch" summed up my expression and my message of who I was at the time. The overarching message was that there’s more to life than what most people may think. In the beginning, I say, "Clothes, bankrolls and hoes" and it’s gotta be more to life than that. I wrote, "I woke up early on my born day/I’m 20/It's a blessing" and that feeling of being alive was strong. I had already felt like I’d been through a lot and I was just happy to be alive.

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“The World Is Yours”

Illmatic (1994)

That whole song was inspired by Scarface. There's a scene where [Tony Montana] took his queen and took over in the movie. He goes out on the balcony for some air, looks up out the sky and says, "It’s time." At this point in time, he sees a blimp with the message "The world is yours" right there. That’s how real life is, you know? You’ll see a sign or some symbolism of what you’re going through; things that happen that tell you you’re at the right place at the right time. It was scenes and symbols like this that I grew up on that really made a difference in my head.

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“I Gave You Power”

It Was Written (1996)

That was one of the fastest songs I wrote to get started, but I don’t think I finished it all in one day. I wanted to just draw from nowhere and just go in. You think of street experiences and you write about it; you don’t even think. I didn’t think much about it, but I didn’t have to, you know? The song just had to be made; I just needed to get that done to get to the next song. I thought it was a cool song for me. I enjoyed it and I thought a few people would like it; it turned out a lot more people liked it than I expected. It was my personal record for me and I didn’t really think outside of me when I wrote it.

Not to sound funny, but I had better ideas than that that I never did because I knew they were songs that would be for me and I thought no one else would give a fuck. They were never recorded and I forgot what they were. I still feel like I could channel that person, though, if it comes down to it; that guy in me; that writer. It may not be received in a great or big way, but I would love it.

Saying "Nas goes mainstream" on It Was Written is an easy way of looking at it, but it was a lot more complicated than that. I started that record and the record leaked, so I had to get a new game plan because I didn’t know who I can trust and who I can record with where the songs wouldn’t leak and who would see my bigger vision. I was starting to hear my influence on a lot of rappers that were making names for themselves and I had to figure out a way to survive because if rap fans would say, "Well everybody sounds the same, doing the same thing," then it’s over for you.

So how do you make yourself different enough and boost yourself up on the level that you’re on if people are trying to sound like you or talk like you? Our task was to get over what they called back then, the sophomore jinx. So I needed real producers. Notorious B.I.G. had serious production. My first album had serious production, but I had already worked with them, so I needed to do something that would be next level because the game had become more serious on every level. 

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“Nas Is Coming”

It Was Written (1996)

It was the middle of the East-West war. Dre had left Death Row and I was a big fan of Dre’s and Dre liked my stuff. A few years before, I was new and I went out and performed at this club that Prince owned in Los Angeles at the time. The club was hitting. It's right before the album dropped and I came out with a glass of Hennessy and a cigar and I said my stuff and I left and I think that impressed Dre. He saw the L.A. audience reacting well to it too and we talked and he was still at Death Row at this point.

Years later, I’m in the business and we're right in the middle of this East Coast-West Coast shit. Dre just wanted to make music; he wasn’t really caught up in that shit. At the end of the day, he's riding for his team, but he got to a point where there was internal beef on his side and he wanted to work and I wanted to work. The East and West wasn’t really too happy about that, but we wanted to work together and "Nas Is Coming" was the first thing we did.

The whole East Coast-West Coast thing, I was just watching what was going on. Tupac showed me a lot of respect on the intro to Makavelihe called me the leader of the East Coastso me and him both had a mutual respect, and I didn’t want any East Coast-West Coast beef at all.

 

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“Hate Me Now”

I Am… (1999)

After my first record, they were like, "You can’t do it again. He can’t do this. He can’t do that. He’s not as big as this one. He’s not as big as that one. He’ll never be around again. He’s too grimy. He’s too street. He has a bad following. People around him start trouble." I had a bad rap, so I blew that away with the second album. So now they mad at that, and found a different reason to be mad at me. So "Hate Me Now" was the appropriate record at the time.

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“Nastradamus”

Nastradamus (1999)

The song was a EPMD sample and I just freestyled it. I was riding high off multi-platinum sales off I Am…, and just didn’t want to do anything but freestyle that single and put it out. We had a concept to make the video 3D, but we didn’t figure out how to get all the glasses to people and time was against us. Glasses were made, but obviously not enough for every household, so we fucked that one up a little bit. On that album, there’s a couple of songs that have a certain sound to it that doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve done. And it was a gray area in my life and that album represents that gray area. It was personal stuff that I'd rather not elaborate on. But I have nothing against that album.

I Am…, [released earlier that year]was originally supposed to be a double album, but the songs leaked and that killed it for me. I didn’t want to touch it. I hated that because no one’s supposed to hear a song before it’s time, so if that happens, I didn't fuck with the record. It’s over. The record never existed. So I went and started brand new music. At the time, my brother Jungle was managing Noriega and Nature and he was getting a lot of beats from guys that were just blasting in the business, like Dame Grease and Swizz Beatz, and those beats was ahead of their time and I didn’t understand them that well. Then DMX and Nori really made them happen and I was able to go grab Dame Grease, [who produced four songs from Nastradamus] and be like, "Yo, work with me." The Nostradamus thing was about the end of the world being the year 2000, so my record would be dropping right toward the end of the world.

 

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“Got Ur Self A…”

Stillmatic (2001)

This one was just so huge to me and my then-manager Steve Stoute. The Sopranos was our favorite thing and we were so happy that HBO gave us that. [The song sampled Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning," the show's theme song.] I love Goodfellas, but now it went from the movie theater to your household. I was praying because I wanted to be the first one to use that sample because at that point, everybody was watching The Sopranos. We thought there would be nothing cooler than to have their theme song as my theme song and we were so happy to use it. Some people think that had something to do with the Jay Z beef, but that one had nothing to do with any rapper. It was about who could use that sample first.

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“2nd Childhood”

Stillmatic (2001)

How many grownups do you see every day that still act like children? It’s a shame. In life, with your woman, your man, your family, there’s grownups who you expect so much more from are just really nothing more than a child. They're big kids and these are people with power I’m talking about, so "2nd Childhood" was very important.

 

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“Poppa Was a Playa”

The Lost Tapes (2002)

I was really just feeding and channeling the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." When I was a kid, I had a friend and his stepdad's name was Papa. This friend is dead now, but he didn’t really like Papa that much because Papa was a dope fiend. When the Temptations song came on, he sang it a little extra. We were kids at this point and that stayed with me forever. My pop was not a dope fiend—my pop was my pop—so I talked about him. This was also one of Kanye’s first production. I didn’t even know him at the time. He just came through via someone else.

 

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“Last Real N—a Alive”

God's Son (2002)

Yeah, sometimes I tell stories, man, and I’ll use my imagination just for the sake of putting a good rhyme together and a good song. But sometimes, like with this one, the songs are just very literal.

[The song references, in part, Nas' public feud with Jay Z in the early 2000s.] 

Tupac and Biggie never lived to see the impact that they were going to have. If [Jay and I] learned anything from that, it was that this had to be different. We owed itnot just for me and him, but to everybody in rapto those huge, game-changing artists to carry on this thing the right way. It was good that it never got to violence.

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“Dance”

God's Son (2002)

[Nas' mother, Fannie Ann Jones, passed away before the release of God's Son. The rapper wrote this song as a dedication to her.]

My brother can’t listen to that song to this day. But it was an easy one to write for me. [Pauses] It’s an easy one. [Pauses] I had to get it out.

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“Bridging the Gap”

Street's Disciple (2004)

I recorded this one with my pop [jazz cornetist Olu Dara]. My mom had passed and I was trying to… my pop was always my man so I wanted to make sure we did things while we’re still here. [Producer] Salaam [Remi] was all for a challenge and always up for something different. And Salaam was real cool with my pop, so he just knew which way to go. We wrote this one together.

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“Thief’s Theme”

Street's Disciple (2004)

We just took a line from "The World is Yours"—You know, "Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with/The thief’s theme/Play me at night/They won’t act right". That’s the type of music and vibe we were looking for. I wanted to zero in on that and make a thief’s theme. And not for real thieves. I hate thieves. I hate thieves, rapists and pedophiles more than any people in the world. But "Thief’s Theme" is an attitude. It’s not literal. It’s an underworld. It’s not popular. It’s not pop music. It’s music for guys who live in the underworld.

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“Hip Hop Is Dead”

Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)

I was surprised no one named their album this before me. Bushwick Bill of Geto Boys had worn it on a T-shirt at one point. Tribe Called Quest talked about it in an interview I read about years ago. Outkast even mentions something in that area at some point. It was a topic within the hip hop community, so there had to be an album about it. And I felt like at the time it was needed.

Will.i.am produced this and I thought, "What’s better than to say hip-hop is dead than with will.i.am, who’s a genius but not necessarily known as a 'real' hip-hop guy, even though he is a hip-hop guy." To hip-hop people, will.i.am is over there somewhere, so to get him to re-do the "Thief’s Theme" beat, whereI don’t know if he knew when he played it for mebut I thought it was funny to have "Thief’s Theme" as a single on the last album and then to do the same track with the same beat. Because shit is dead, so it doesn’t even matter what beat you use. So yeah, it was big-time funny to me. I was loving the criticism.

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“Who Killed It?”

Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)

It was all about James Cagney. I got caught up in all his moviesThe Roaring Twenties, really all of his gangster moviesand he’s one of my favorite characters of all time, ever. When he did the gangster movies is just the best shit. So I would play around and talk like him in the studio just for fun. We didn't plan on doing it as a song, but we just did.

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“Not Going Back”

Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)

You know in The Godfather 3and forgive me for making so many movie referencesthere’s a scene when Michael Corleone says, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." And that’s a moment I think a lot of people deal with. People are always trying to focus on moving forward. That scene resonated with me big time, so "Not Going Back" is that scene. I didn’t get it from that movie, but it’s the same thing. I was just using the movie as a way to see what I’m saying. You’re struck with those moments in your life where you don’t want to be pulled backwards, and you feel that you're being pulled from all different directions, so "Not Going Back" was that kind of thing.

 

 

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“Untitled”

Untitled (2008)

I feel like revolutionaries should be rewarded. I don’t think they feel that way because they’re fighting, but I think that us, the ones they’re fighting for… Say, for example, some revolutionary that died like a martyr, Che, was wounded instead of died. Say JFK was wounded instead of dying. I feel like these were people for the people, even though JFK was a president and you don’t really know what’s going on behind the doors in the White House. I just feel like they deserve some type of pension from the people. I wish I could bring them back here and raise money to put them in a beach house and say, "Man, you did everything. You earned it, man." There’s people who live and then people who really live and those people deserve it.

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“No Introduction”

Life Is Good (2012)

A lot of times, when you do a record or a new album, you’re kind of re-introducing yourself to the rap world or the music world, so the first song had to be reminding people like, let’s go through a story with me on who I am, you know? I wanted to lay it all out. The self-censoring stuff were lines that fell on the editing floor. I’d think some things, then go, "Nah, can’t reveal that." I exaggerated a little bit. Say, for example, "syrup sandwiches and sugar water" was a thing that a lot of kids in my neighborhood ate. I didn’t grow up needing sugar water. There were days when there was nothing there and groceries are on their way and we remembered a story: some of our poorer friends had syrup sandwiches and we tried it and I hated it. But I remember kids swearing by these terrible, makeshift meals, and it was memories like that that wound up in the music.

 

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