Let's begin with a disclaimer: Nas doesn't endorse the following sentence.
But he's the greatest lyricist of all time.
Those words were carefully chosen: "lyricist" over "rapper" or "hip-hop artist;" "greatest" instead of "most successful;" "all time" rather than "today."
Those distinctions are important. Still, Nas isn't buying it.
"It's wayyyyyy, way, way too early in our lives," he said when asked where he fits among history's best MCs. "It's great to put a list together, but don't take it too seriously because your list won't matter 10 years from now or 15 years from now. It'll be a different list."
OK, no lists then; just a strong case for Nas being the best rhymesmith ever, the GOAT, numero uno, and a humble concession that this is but one man's opinion and yours are enthusiastically welcomed below.
With "Life is Good," Nas dropped his ninth No. 1 hip-hop album since 1994. Seven of those have gone platinum, which places him second among rappers only to Jay-Z with 11. (We're not counting compilations or collaborations here, only original solo efforts, and yes, Tupac Shakur had nine, but five were posthumous releases.)
It also ties Nas with Snoop Dogg or Snoop Lion or whatever his name is, and it puts the Queens native one plaque ahead of Eminem, Too Short, OutKast and LL Cool J, all of whom belong in the greatest-ever discussion, as well.
Hold on, you say? OutKast is not a solo act? And if they're included, why not the Beastie Boys, who also have six platinum records?
Agreed, but dissect OutKast into the individual components of Big Boi and André 3000, and you have two of the most technically deft rhymers to bless the mic. (Another disclaimer: This article's author is an ATLien.)
From 1994's "Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik" to 2003's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," OutKast owned most hip-hop rivals, but since then -- barring the "Idlewild" soundtrack -- they've fallen off considerably: Big Boi has put out a pair of tepidly received solo efforts, André a few razor commercials.
While commercial success is important to the equation -- and the sole reason the brilliant Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch aren't included in the debate -- it's only one variable.
This debate, if you will, isn't so much about who can move the most rump in a club, but rather, if we were delivered back to 1800, who could hold their own with Coleridge and Wordsworth. It's why we're arguing lyricists and not artists.
The big 4-0
In a genre not known for the longevity of its luminaries, making it 10, 15, 20 years means you're a survivor -- and you survive only if people keep buying your music.
Unlike his aforementioned brethren in the Multiplatinum Club, Nas has done that without a platinum single. Not "Street Dreams." Not "Nas is Like." Not "Made You Look." Not one.
It means his fans want the entire package, the album as a complete work of art -- an endangered concept in the days of iTunes and Spotify.
Given the occasional knocks on Nas' production, it's got to be the lyrical wizardry that keep folks coming back, right? As he turns 40 this year -- sorry if that makes "Illmatic" fans feel old -- he's adapted to every sea change in rap and weathered every label, right or wrong, affixed to him.
"I've been called everything. Gangsta rap. I've been called conscious rap. You know, everything. Whoever feels like calling it whatever they want to call it, that's on them," he said.
Asked how he could be called socially responsible in one breath and a glorifier of violence in the next, Nas said he's not responsible for such tags.
"Don't blame me; blame our wonderful country, America. And you can't even blame America. It's life. Blame life. I talk about life, and I make universal music with an American style -- and that's what I do," he said. "I know one thing: People put too many labels on music."
Strange thing is, Nas didn't know he wanted to be a rapper when he was young, he said.
"There wasn't a lot of things that I wanted to do where African-Americans were achieving what we achieve today because it just wasn't allowed, funny enough to say," said the son of jazz cornet player Olu Dara. "I was trying to figure out, should I become a screenplay writer? Should I be a movie director? Should I make music for theater? I was thinking in the arts, anything that had to do with the arts. Of course, I never had a job in my life, and so I was just this dude that was hanging out -- a vagabond, if you will, in New York."
That's when Large Professor noticed his lyrical skills. A member of Main Source, Xtra P put him on the track "Live at the Barbeque." The song, funky in its own right, is considered a classic today because it introduced the nation to a phenom from Queensbridge Houses named Nasir Jones.
'A street dude with morals'