A few years ago, I took it upon myself to write a list in the makeshift studio setup that my crew, The Balance, used to operate out of. This list broke down all of the qualities that define a great rapper by most popular definitions into categories like flow, personality/charisma, lyrical depth, etc. I felt it important because most of us Hip-Hop listeners never think critically about why we like the rappers that we like. Sometimes, we just like folk simply because we do and for no deeper reason than that. Yet it’s more common and logical to deduce that we like who we consider our favorites and “bests” because they excel in a certain category. It’s super rare for a rapper to encompass exceptional talent in a multitude of these categories all at the same time, and for those who do, we should recognize what a feat that is and give it more respect. More often, we can’t separate who we like from our opinions on their technical skills. That in mind, I’ll start with an example that expresses the art of doing so perfectly.
My opinion of Mr. Jones may be steeped in scrutiny and indicative of a complex love-hate listener relationship. And though I wouldn’t consider myself a fan, he was absolutely right on “Ether” when he said “name a rapper that, I ain’t influence” (one of the few truisms in that overhyped song). This includes me.
Slick Rick may have reinvented the wheel, and Biggie might be everyone’s favorite, but the Storytelling ethic of Nasir Jones is unrivaled and unparalleled. He perfected and owned it. He’s tackled Story-based rap from so many conceivable angles that it would be futile for another rapper to try to keep up. Effortlessly playing with characters, personification, linear dimensions, flow, pacing, conceit and metaphor, with a crazy attention to detail, this is why he’s a legend. He may be the most contradictory rap artist in history, and he may be deficient when it comes to making commercial bangers or bragging raps or even staying on topic when he’s not telling stories, but this is where you can truly see Nas’ genius. Here are some of the best examples.
10. ONE LOVE
A cult classic. Tho most of Nas’ stories revolve around violence and street fare, this is the seminal track that planted his flag as the new hood novelist. It resonated with so many street dudes and people with folks locked up. And it was just sooooo New York.
9. BLAZE A 50
An unreleased track that many Nas fans consider a gem and one of his most action-packed escapades where he actually restarts the tale towards the end.
8. PUSSY KILLS
Not many are familiar with this one, but that’s exactly what Nas did flawlessly here; made you feel familiar with characters he introduced in a likely situation about a very understandable topic. All while making a larger philosophical point. Pussy does indeed kill…
7. GETTING MARRIED
Speaking of which…this vivid and candid story takes on a whole new significance in light of how this matrimony unfolded. Not his best ending either – lyrically or literally.
6. SEKOU STORY/LIVE NOW
This 2-part saga reflects on Nas’ allegiance to a hustler he befriended who’s wife seeks his help after his murder and then offers advice as the plot takes an unexpected turn as Nas reflects on his own life.
5. FETUS (Belly Button Window)
Say what you will, but not too many cats out there can rap about their own prenatal existence and birth.
4. FRIED CHICKEN
The Nigger raps about fried Chicken as if it were a lady, while telling a loose history of it’s love affair with the American Negro. With an assist by Busta. Who’s doing shit like this??! Nobody else.
For the simple fact that he pays enough attention to the cohesion and theme of the story that he actually says words backwards, this conversation and list should be done right here! The fact that the beat borrows from a 80’s rap classic only heightens the fact and adds poetic justice.
2. UNDYING LOVE
This is my favorite Nas story. It’s so cinematic that you would swear you were his accomplice. My only gripe is that he says he prays to “Muhammad and Allah” at the end. Uhh..Hey guy with the Islamic name, you should know that Muhammad is the prophet and Allah is God. Lots of Muslims would be trying to put your head on the chopping block after hearing that part. Especially because right after that you follow it with a suicide
1. WHO KILLED IT?
It doesn’t get anymore creative than this. Give him his props for switching up the flow (Which he rarely does, but kills it whenever he puts effort in) and fully diving into a character and maintaining it for the whole song. On top of that, he incorporated double entendres, dialect and dropped food for thought. Aha!
And just for the Hell of it, because this is the standard that all post 90’s rappers modeled their creative and conceptual rhymes from and because it really does stand in a class by itself for redfining the story rhyme, Here you go…It can’t even be put on a list.
If you remember the album, It Was Written, then you remember that the song before this “Street Dreams” kept ending in a gunshot sound after every break, so after the final break a short skit ensued where people were running from that gunshot as it was depicted as a club shooting where the gunman tossed the weapon away and then Nas begins his monologue. It was true album artistry. He just set the stage for this song to feel important. And it was. indelibly so…Sure, Common did it before him with “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, and Pharoahe Monch and Organized Konfusion did the gun/bullet thing first, but Nas made the world pay attention. Even 2Pac had to try to 1up him after hearing that.
And there’s alot of songs that I could’ve added here, like “Poppa Was A Player”, “Drunk By Myself”, “2nd Childhood”, because his arsenal of stories is so immense and colorful, but you’ll find it hard to debate with me on any of this here. Give him the crown. “It’s one life, one love so there can only be one king”.