Nas is just different. There are levels to being a lyricist and when it comes to rhyming, Esco has acquired the glow, collected all the Infinity Stones and lived in a Super Saiyan state of being for more than two decades. The Queens legend’s innate ability to whimsically string words together is punctuated by his penchant for delivering some of the most vividly picturesque tracks in rap history.
There are a number of other notable names that come up in the argument of who is rap's best storytelling. Ghostface Killah, The Notorious B.I.G. and Slick Rick are often mentioned, while more recently J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar have crept into the conversation. But Nasir Jones is truly hip-hop’s Hemmingway, a Shakespeare of shootout raps and William Faulkner of big Willy delineation.
Queensbridge’s poet laureate recently showed off his premier penmanship once again on “Echo,” a track from Swizz Beatz's new Poison album. Social media has been abuzz over Nasty’s epic contribution, which finds him providing a 4K portrait of his era growing up in QB.
“We was Times Square pioneers, 40 deuce, 40-below boots/40 ounce brew, the true Bishop from Juice,” he spits. “Runnin' wild, loose, me and my 40 troops were stupid/Style, it was snorkel coats, Polo gooses, ruthless/Goons and wolves, bail-jumpers/Everybody from everywhere/They was tryin' to jump us for pumpin.'”
When it comes to telling stories, Nas’ literary trick bag is deep. Over the course of 11 albums, he’s painted pictures in some very creative ways using fiction, non-fiction, personification and even reverse chronological order. Reverse! Who does that? Nas does that, with ease.
With Nasty's latest story rap having some people calling it his best in years, XXL compiles a list of some of the most theatrical tracks of God Son’s career.
“One Love”'Illmatic' (1994)
This Illmatic gem first finds Nas spitting a letter he’d written to his mans on Rikers Island, updating him of the goings on in the free world. The third verse, which depicts a conversation with a young kid in his hood, was so vivid that it was adapted into a scene in the 1998 film Belly.
“I Gave You Power”'It Was Written' (1996)
It’s hard out here for a stolen firearm. Esco personifies himself as a gun and tells the story of the killing machine’s hectic existence—and twisted fate.
“Shootouts”'It Was Written' (1996)
In this episode of the QB Chronicles, Nas tells the fictional story of a renegade cop that Esco and Jungle set up and take out. The second verse involves a festive hood block party that turns into a deadly shootout when tensions rise.
"The Set Up"'It Was Written' (1996)
Nas' sophomore album was stuffed with street narratives, and "The Set Up" is one of the more memorable, as Escobar spins a revenge narrative with two femme fatales as assassins.
"Phone Tap"'The Firm: The Album' (1997)
Nas and AZ have had unparalleled chemistry ever since they first linked up on "Life's a Bitch." Here, they go back and forth in a phone conversation in which they discover they're the targets of a federal sting operation, thanks to a heads up by Nature.
“Small World”'I Am...' (1999)
On the novella-worthy “Small World,” Nas raps about the minimal degrees of separation between people in the business of illegal activity, telling the story of two characters who end up crossing paths. It's a small underworld after all.
“Undying Love”'I Am…' (1999)
God’s Son closes out I Am… with this macabre first-person account of a man who returns home from a trip from Las Vegas with intentions on proposing to his wife only to find her cheating on him with another man. What happens next is shocking, to say the least.
"Body in the Trunk"'N.O.R.E.' (1998)
Nas rides shotgun on this classic N.O.R.E. track about a murder and its aftermath—a dead man in the back of the car.
This Slick Rick-sampling deep cut never made its way onto an official album but it plays like a memoir depicting how Nas was quickly anointed as the second coming of Rakim and how that high came crashing down in the years that followed. It's an incredibly self-aware look at Nas' life and career through his first three albums.
“Shoot ‘Em Up”'Nastradamus' (1999)
“Shoot ‘Em Up” is not as technically awe-inspiring as some of his other story raps. Yet on it, Nas utilizes the basic rhyme flow from the “Carol of the Bells” Christmas jingle. The audacity makes the pistol-popping song a highlight in Nas’ narrative catalog.
This is quite honestly one hip-hop's most creative spins on narrative lyricism. Nas literally paints the scene in reverse, starting with a man being shot and recounting the events that led to the shooting. It's like watching a movie on rewind.
“2nd Childhood”'Stillmatic' (2001)
Nas eloquently reminisces about people from his past who have failed to develop into the adult stage in life despite being of age. Esco even calls himself out on the DJ Premier track.
“Fetus”'The Lost Tapes' (2002)
In another creative take, the Queens legend plays the role of himself as an unborn fetus on the aptly titled The Lost Tapes track. Nas gives a detailed chronicle of his time in the womb, ending with his birth.
“Blaze a 50”'The Lost Tapes' (2002)
Nas weaves the twisted tale of a murderous plot on this The Lost Tapes track produced by L.E.S. and Trackmasters. This one even comes with a Memento style twist ending.
“Get Down”'God’s Son' (2002)
“Get Down” consists of a handful of short stories told over the course of two verses. Nas covers the instance of a guy who saved him from making a bad decision as a youth, the true story of a wild court hearing and the run of a group of Southern hustlers.
"Last Real Nigga Alive"'God's Son' (2002)
In the aftermath of Jay-Z and Nas' lyrical clash, the Queensbridge rapper gave a backstory to the quest for King of New York, including Biggie, Puff Daddy and Wu-Tang Clan. Of course he ends the origin story by taking a few more jabs at Jigga. True story.
“Sekou Story”'Street’s Disciple' (2004)
Nasty gives the fictional play-by-play of his interactions with a Florida drug dealer named Sekou, who he befriended while on vacation. When 'Kou ends up dead, Nas is sought out by the late man’s widow to settle the score. Esco even takes on a woman’s persona, Scarlett, for the second half of the track (which continues with its Streets Disciple counterpart, "Live Now").
“Getting Married”'Street’s Disciple' (2004)
Nas’ relationship with Kelis is all bad now, but it was all good in 2004. On the track “Getting Married,” Nas offers intimate details about his wedding day.
“Surviving the Times”'Greatest Hits' (2007)
The previously unreleased track appeared on Nas’ 2007 Greatest Hits album. Recorded years prior, QB’s finest gives his lucid account of the genesis of his career and the influential moments leading up to that point.
“A Queens Story”'Life Is Good' (2012)
"A Queens Story" is just that. Nasir vividly recounts turbulent times and infamous characters from his old stomping ground.