In 1994, Nasir Jones released one of the seminal albums in modern-music history: “Stillmatic,” a profane tale of a young man determined to survive the hard life in the violent, drug-infested, hope-crushing projects of New York City. Under the then-20-year-old’s stinging raps, which rang with the authenticity of reportage and the dramatic sweep of a documentary, Nas’s music palette tapped into blues, funk, swinging jazz (including a performance by his father, the cornetist Olu Dara) and old school hip-hop. “Stillmatic” is widely considered to be among rap’s greatest recordings.
With an opening act that seemed impossible to top, Nas nonetheless built on the status of his debut, becoming one of popular music’s most intriguing and successful artists. He courted controversy by engaging in a bitter, highly public spat with Jay Z, often in song – including in “Ether” on his late 2001 album “Stillmatic,” a return to the impressive form of his first disk.
On “Stillmatic,” Nas declared immediately that he was looked ahead, not to his past: “They thought I’ll make another ‘Illmatic’/But it’s always forward I’m moving/Never backwards, stupid, here’s another classic,” he stated in the opening cut. Then he went after Jay Z and other rappers he felt failed to acknowledge his achievements: “I am the truest, name a rapper I ain’t influenced/Gave y’all chapters but now I keep my eye on the Judas…The king is back. Where my crown at?” In “Got Ur Self A…,” which drew Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” that served as the intro theme to “The Sopranos,” Nas again asserted his primacy as a rapper, as if the point hadn’t been made, but then shifted the theme toward crime and violence. In the sexually explicit “Rewind,” he told the story of a death by gunfire in reverse order: “I spit the story backwards/It starts at the end/The bullet goes back in the gun.”
Nas rapped melodically at times, as in the hook to “Smokin’,” and used simple, hypnotic motifs to underpin raps that resemble sing-songs. He employed his guests with purpose: In a nod to one of his influences, he brought in Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest to contribute to the bubbling “One Love.” Dara added a floating solo to “Life’s a Bitch,” with also featured the rapper AZ, a frequent Nas collaborator. And he sampled from discs far and wide including “Sugar Man” by Rodriguez, “Smilin’ Billy Suite Pt. II” by the Health Brothers, “Monkey Island” by the J. Geils Band and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
Though it lacked the shock of the new, “Stillmatic” sold well in excess of two million copies in the U.S. alone. The Source, the influential hip-hop magazine, gave it five ‘mics,’ its highest ranking. Nas has since released five albums and remains among the genre’s most influential artists, a status that was fortified by “Stillmatic.”