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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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“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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