This past weekend, CNN named Nas’ “Life Is Good” as one of the best albums of the year. The deeply introspective disc, found Nasir taking his fans through his life, touching on everything from his divorce with ex-wife Kelis, to his relationship with his daughter. The album was recently nominated for a Grammy, marking a great year for a great artist.
CNN would take the conversation past just discussing what was widely considered a great album into a debate that would divide many hip hop insiders. The writer of the story, Elliot C. McLaughlin would go on to crown Nas the greatest lyricist ever! Now, that’s actually not that much of a reach for me. Album for Album, Nas has held his own and can rightfully claim that title if he wanted.
He’s stayed lyrically sharp and kept himself relevant in an ever changing industry. He’s survived battles (Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Mobb Deep, 2 Pac) and made classic records (Illmatic). He’s had hit club and street records. He’s had hits (If I ruled the world) and misses (You Owe Me). He’s held his own with the best artists of the times (Jay-Z, Eminem). He’s made uplifting anthems (One Mic) and introduced new genres to the game (Change the Game). But does that make him the greatest lyricist of all-time?
I’m not sure about that really. I feel like making that assumption is purely an opinion and everyone is allowed their opinion. You can’t just hand him the title, without making an argument for others.
You can say someone like Jay-Z is arguably a sharper lyricist, one who has really been able to not only transcend the times, but change the atmosphere whenever he made an appearance. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane deserve to be in that conversation. They both ushered in a whole new era of emcees with their penchant for vivid metaphors and complex rhyme patterns that are still imitated to this day. You have to mention the Notorious B.I.G. whose art of storytelling could rival a poet like Langston Hughes for being both entertaining and engaging.
When you add it all up though, the argument for Nas being the greatest lyricist of all-time can hold true. While Nas might not be the biggest star, or the most entertaining of the bunch, lyrically, he is what a rapper should be. He dives deep into himself with his rhymes, touching on vulnerable spots in his life and others. Nas has the ability to touch an average thug sitting on a park bench in the project and a hipster riding on his skateboard. His debut album “Illmatic” should serve as a manual for how to make an album. 11 tracks, minimum collaborations, intense production all coupled with the fact that the person on the mic could flat out rhyme! Whether you agree or disagree, Nas has as good of an argument as any to say that he is the best lyricist ever, even if that’s not a unanimous decision.
When you look back on his career, his rhymes have served as an in-depth report on the life and times of many young Black men growing up in the inner city in the late 90’s who managed to survive the times. His words will last forever in the hearts and minds of old fans and new ones. Is Nas the greatest lyricist ever? I’m not sure we can say that hands down, but having the conversation helps us understand what a great mind and talent that we have all had the chance to enjoy for so long. I hope he continues to make music so we can have this debate for the rest of our lives.
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