Nas has had a lengthy, storied career, with plenty of highlights. But, the foundation of his success clearly lies with his early work. Beginning with his classic debut album, Illmatic, Mr. Jones gained recognition as one of the most unique and important talents in the game. His first five albums weren’t all as celebrated as his inauguration onto the scene (we’re looking at you, Nastradamus), but each provided at least some highlights in their own right, and were crucial in marking the many stages of the Queens MC’s career. It was these first five that ensured that he’d have a chance to deliver another five over the next decade.
_________________________With apologies to De La Soul, five is the magic number. It’s usually the amount of albums in a standard record deal, but few MCs ever fulfill their contractual obligations with as much aplomb as they started. Whether an artist peaks early or late, staying consistent over the duration of five albums has proven challenging no matter the era in hip-hop. XXLmag.com decided to rank the best first-five album runs in hip-hop history (First 5). A new act and their ranking will be revealed each day of the week throughout the month of October and the Top 5 will be revealed on November 5th. Get in on the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #XXLFirst5.
1. Illmatic (1994)
Release Date: April 29, 1994
Nas’ debut album is unquestionably considered one of the greatest hip-hop releases of all-time. The 10-track Illmatic built upon the Queens rappers’ scene-stealing verses over the last couple years, and suggested he’d be one of the most crucial figures of the next two decades. With production contributions from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor and more, Nasty crafted vivid scenes depicting his upbringing and surroundings, while employing his gifted technical mic skills, as well.
2. It Was Written (1996)
Release Date: July 2, 1996
When it was time to release It Was Written two years after his classic debut, Nas was no longer on the come up. Thanks to his previous work, as well as the enormous Trackmasters-produced single, “If I Ruled the Wolrd (Imagine That),” featuring Lauryn Hill, the album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when released. As he stepped into his role as Nas Escobar, the Queens rapper also provided memorable joints like “Street Dreams,” “I Gave You Power,” “The Message” and “Black Girl Lost.” The release established Nas not just as a favorite of hip-hop heads, but as a hip-hop artist with mainstream appeal.
4. I Am (1999)
Release Date: April 6, 1999
Almost a full three years after his sophomore effort, Nas returned to deliver I Am…, his third album. The disc included successful singles “Nas Is Like,” produced by DJ Premier, and “Hate Me Now,” featuring Puff Daddy. In addition to Preemo and the Trackmasters, Timbaland and L.E.S. lent their sonic touch to the creation, which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Other high profile contributors included DMX, Scarface and Aaliyah. As usual, Nas’ lyricism remained sharp.
5. Nastradamus (1999)
Label: Columbia, Ill Will Records
Release Date: November 29, 1999
Just half a year after I Am…, Nas was back to drop Nastradamus. His previous effort was supposed to have been a double CD, and it is said that the follow up contains some leftovers from that earlier project. Commercially and critically, the album didn’t match the previous releases, as it hit No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and was viewed as an artistic lapse in Nas’ otherwise mostly unimpeachable catalog. The song “Nastradamus” found Nasty firing a shot at Memphis Bleek, and the second single “You Owe Me,” featuring Ginuwine and produced by Timabaland, would later be used as fodder by Jay-Z in his battle with Nas on wax.
3. Stillmatic (2001)
Label: Columbia, Ill Will Records
Release Date: December 18, 2001
With a subpar showing on his prior album and embroiled in a feud with Jay-Z in which the odds seemed stacked against him, Nas needed an album exactly like Stillmatic to mount his return. Two years after his last release, the comeback album reused the title from his debut, and indeed was able to achieve a similar excellence. Between creating a verb with the Hov-aimed “Ether” (someone can now get “ethered”), and “One Mic,” regarded both a successful single and as one of Nas’ best works, the album contained an array of gems. The project hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and again planted Nas’ feet in the ground as one of the game’s best.