Illmatic is fine. A hardass young upstart rapper plays an old pro over dusty, eerie (read: "cinematic") beats with samples that never fully conjoin and keeps it all under 40 minutes. It's an ideal debut. What it's not is a finishing point. It's in fact so idealized that it's not absurd to suggest rappers liked it so much because it provided an easy-to-imitate template of cool. It would be much harder to imitate the Memento-biting "Rewind" or the Maltese Falcon-inspired "Who Killed It?" Forget cinematic, those would require acting lessons. Ahead of Nas' show tonight at the Fox Oakland, here are five Nas albums that are at least as good as, if not better than, his debut.
God's Son (2003)
Nas' liveliest-ever album busts out of the gate with a gorgeously crackling James Brown tribute, a feral Eminem production, and his baddest single ever, his "Jack the Ripper," "Made You Look." "Thugz Mansion" is a harmless, pretty Tupac tribute, "Last Real Nigga Alive" fills in details no outsider knew about the Raekwon/Biggie beef, and the page-turning "Book of Rhymes" is more proof of his underrated gift for novelty songs. The squirmy Bravehearts cut "Zone Out" sounds better in a post-Clipse context, and even a crappy song like "I Can" still performs the long-overdue service of making a cool beat from "Fur Elise."
Life Is Good (2012)
"Fifteen I got a gun/ Sixteen I robbed a train" is why Illmatic fans suddenly love him again, but the production is outstanding. And despite a single calling out "accident murderers," he's retained his wisdom and sounds absolutely ferocious on "The Don," a reggae flip that destroys anything on his still-underrated Damian Marley collaboration Distant Relatives.
The Lost Tapes (2002)
Nas' first great album was made up of outtakes from shitty ones, what does that tell you? That he doesn't know his own strengths? So yeah, hanging off a cross with Puffy wasn't his best look. This is where he reclaims his so-called realism after the Sopranos-inspired fiction-and-homophobia of Stillmatic, and finds that he's actually much more realistic on "Doo Rags," "No Idea's Original," and "Black Zombies" than he was when he started. "Blaze a 50" is unrepentant, "Poppa Was a Player" an honest account of how "My father was always late but he came home." And while "You Gotta Love It" probably falls under those "boring beats" people are always accusing him of, it's pretty as a sunset and lighter than air.