Nas, “The Biography” (Originally Published February 1999)

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This Saturday, Nas’ magnum opus Illmatic turns 20. The Queensbridge native’s journey into becoming a legendary MC all started with a groundbreaking debut that captured his worldview of the projects through a sharpened lens. XXL is celebrating the monumental anniversary with Nas Week, and we are proud to present you with every cover the iconic rapper has appeared on. Now let us take a trip down memory lane.

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He Is…THE BIOGRAPHY. True heads love him because he’s Nasty Nas, creator of Illmatic. Gangstas love him because he’s Nas Escobar, creator of It Was Written. With Nasir Jones’ third album, I Am…The Autobiography, the two become one.

To tell you the truth, the true admiration that I got is for the old school. I appreciate the new school; I admire the old school. The old school is niggas like [Big Daddy] Kane. Rakim. I even consider Nas old school. When Nas came out, it was “Live at the Barbeque.” I consider that old school. Nas was on the edge of new school, but when the nigga came out, he came out in the old-school era and shocked the whole fuckin’ world. Nas was somebody that I admired because of the time he came out.—Canibus

Director Hype Williams’ visually stunning morality parable, opens nationwide today. Deep in the winding catacombs of Sony Music Studios, Studio D, a principal star and screenwriter of the film cautiously empties a brown paper bag containing several Dutch Masters cigars onto a 48-track control board. Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones unsheathes a Ziploc bag of herb, briefly glances up at mounted twin televisions displaying Batman Forever, then fixes me with an intent, drowsy glare. “It’ll be funny for a guy who’s going against my album on the chart to say, ‘I’m inspired by Nas,’ because I’m the competition still,” he says. “They don’t wanna say my name. If you say ‘inspiration,’ nobody’s gonna wanna say my name, because I’m looking like the nigga that just came out last week.”

Nas is only 25 and has managed to captivate a dual coterie of fans since debuting on the mic in 1991. It’s hard to tell where the fork in the road began, but the average age of the hip-hop consumer is 17, and that quintessential high school senior was all of nine years old when Nasty Nas, Akinyele and Joe Fatal skewed the track of Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque.” SoundScan reports that Breaking Atoms, the solitary Main Source album, has moved 62,000 copies over the past eight years, and nine-year-olds in ’91 tended to fuck with Kris Kross and MC Hammer. Bottom line, there are Nasty Nas fans and there are Nas Escobar fans. And the twain shall meet on February 23, when the collective catapult his third studio album, I Am…The Autobiography, to the Billboard 200 top spot.

This sort of thing makes Nas an enigma, because when you say you understand Nas, which Nas are you understanding? Some swear by his Illmatic debut, have an intimate knowledge of the Fateful Verse that set hip-hop on its ear (“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”) and lost their minds to Main Source gems like “Looking at the Front Door” and “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” banging through house party speakers. Others thrilled to the double-platinum stats, sleek beats and rhymes of It Was Written, connect with materialism and the Mob overtones on The Firm—The Album and have never heard of Main Source. (For the record—lead MC Large Professor, backing DJs Sir Scratch and K-Cut.)

So, is Nas old school? Most hip-hop purists wouldn’t dare designate anyone past the rise of Run-DMC with the title. Nas himself weighs the inherent contradictions while pulling on a hastily rolled blunt. “I like when people acknowledge that I’ve been rhyming since I was 16, busting the shit out at my pace. I think I’ve influenced a lot of people, and that I should have that title as old school, but it would look funny callin’ me that in a way.” Asked to characterize his 1995 “Fast Life” collaboration with original gangsta wordsmith Kool G Rap, Nas begins fiddling with the ostentatious gold QB (for Queensbridge) medallion around his neck. “That’s a reason why it wouldn’t be fair to call me old school,” he says, his voice rising. “Because it wouldn’t be fair to put me in that rank with Kool G Rap, Kane, Rakim. I feel that I’m the offspring of them as far as lyrics. That makes me feel good, though. A lot of people ain’t up on the whole history of how I been rhyming.”

That familiar understated cadence perpetually makes Nas sound like he just rolled out of bed, but if he says he feels good, you take him at his word. Still, you get the feeling that if Nas were a true old-school artist—like Coke La Rock or Busy Bee—he wouldn’t be the type to rant about his underappreciated pioneer status, fishing around for overdue props. Nas is on some Zen shit. He seems to learn from life lessons (like, say, the meager sales of his classic debut, Illmatic) when and wherever they present themselves. Whether his lasting legacy is Nasty Nas or Nas Escobar, old school or new school, Nasir Jones projects the contentment that comes with the confident mastery of any talent. His reputation as a stellar lyricist and sterling MC has long since been cemented. Nas is laid-back for a reason.

“I got a lot of good fuckin’ memories, man. If I die today, I’ll be like, whatever.” And you believe him.