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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.

by Jason Newman

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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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