The 25 Greatest Nas Songs

Nas is one of the greatest rapping humans to ever breathe on a mic. His catalog runneth over with street anthems, cinematic flair, conceptual prowess  and poetic sorcery.

Ladies and Gents, I give you: Nas' greatest songs.

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25
of 25

"You Wouldn't Understand"

Nas is like...
(Photo © Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

There are many reasons to love "You Wouldn't Understand." One, it's a love note to the old school. Two, the beat knocks. More than anything, though, I love "You Wouldn't Understand" because it's worth everything in the world to hear the voice of the streets say "f*ck it" once in a while. Nas invented YOLO.

24
of 25

"Surviving the Times"

Nas
(Photo © Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"Surviving the Times" is a veteran doing his victory lap after a ribbon-breaking marathon. Nas chronicles his journey, from unsigned MC who "didn't even know what a record advance meant" to elder statesman who now inspires a new generation of poets.

23
of 25

"Black President"

Barack Obama
Barack Obama. © Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

In which a cautiously optimistic Nas captures the enthusiasm behind Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, especially in the hip-hop community. The song's power lies in how Nas flips 2Pac's skepticism ("We ain't ready to see a black president") into a statement of hope.

22
of 25

"Queens Get the Money"

Nas
(Photo © Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

Jay Electronica's brooding piano serves as the perfect setting for Nas' stream-of-conscious flow on this excellent intro to the Queens rapper's Untitled album.

21
of 25

"Nasty"

Nas
(Photo © Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)
"I'm not in the winters of my life or the beginner's stage, I am the dragon." "Nasty" takes Nas back to early 90s New York. The track opens with an announcer querying the crowd of spectators: "Queensbridge, y’all ready to see Nasty Nas?" The guitar drops. The drums breathes. Nas takes the stage and it's on. You're immediately reminded that this is the same genius who gave us Illmatic.
20
of 25

"Hate Me Now"

Every great artist has a moment of rage. "Hate Me Now" was Nas' "I've had it up to here!" soundtrack. You can hear the anger in his voice, as he bullies the beat. Not even Puff Daddy could ruin the moment.

19
of 25

"Blaze a 50"

Nas
(Photo © Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

"Blaze a 50" is Nas showing off his cinematic flair. In under three minutes, he weaves a movie-on-wax tale: sex, drugs, betrayal, murder. You're not even really sure what the plot is, yet you can't look away. 

18
of 25

"Take It In Blood"

"Take It In Blood" is one of the highlights on Nas' underrated second LP, It Was Written. It also serves as a tribute to the song's original producer, Stretch of the Live Squad, who died after working on the song. “Stretch dropped me off at home and went home and he was killed," Nas recalled in an interview.

17
of 25

"Second Childhood"

Nas and DJ Premier go together like peanut butter and toast. I'd have donated a pinky to be a fly on the wall and watch the pair catch this lightning in a bottle.

16
of 25

"Last Real N***a Alive"

Nas. © Sony

In the aftermath of his beef with Jay Z, Hov tried to have the last word with the title track from The Blueprint 2. But Nas quickly brushed him aside with "The Last Real N***a Alive," a descriptive history of New York feuds that shows reverence to Biggie, Diddy, Wu-Tang, while reducing Jay Z to a back-stabbing upstart. Cold. Blooded.

15
of 25

"I Gave You Power"

Like many artists with the gift of gab, Nas conceives new ways to say what's been said before. Rapping about gun violence wasn't exactly groundbreaking in the 90s. What's fresh is Nasir's raw, detailed gun metaphor on "I Gave You Power." Sure, he gave away the plot in the beginning, but he still had you hanging on every word.

14
of 25

"Doo Rags"

Nas
Nas. © Def Jam

A nostalgic treatise on bygone eras, "Doo Rags" finds Nas getting misty-eyed and pondering the fate of Stacy Lattisaw tapes and ear-peeling door knockers. As a gentle piano loop lulls, Nas takes it back to the essence. His vicious flow deflects the pain in his testimony.

13
of 25

"Get Down"

Nas
Nas. © Def Jam

James Brown has long been a looming figure in rap production. A funky slice of Brown is the  driving force behind the "Get Down," the opening track from God's Son. Nas darts his eyes through the hood and reports on drug deals gone awry, tragedies and funerals. Producer Salaam Remi's old black dude impression is a fresh touch.

12
of 25

"One Mic"

Nas. Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The Jay Z beef brought out the best in Nas. "One Mic" makes this case perfectly -- even though Jay isn't referenced directly, it's safe to speculate that he was on Nas' Mind. Nas is hungry and vexed and ferocious throughout "One Mic," which isn't what you might expect from a song built on a Phil Collins sample. A quiet storm that swiftly explodes into a ball of flames. Ali punching a bag while visualizing Frazier's face.

11
of 25

"If I Ruled the World"

Even at his most radio-friendly, Nas offers a message of hope and peace. Lauryn Hill's supple vocals helped make "If I Ruled the World" an surefire summer smash.
10
of 25

"Ether"

Jay-Z and Nas
Jay-Z and Nas. © Scott Gries/Getty Images

You know how people introduce esteemed speakers at events by saying "This next guest  needs no introduction"? That's how I feel about the space I'm about to waste on "Ether." "Ether" needs no introduction. "Ether" is "Ether." If you've never heard it, go listen to it right now. Yes, stop reading this list and go listen to "Ether" right now. I'll wait.

09
of 25

"The Message"

"The Message" has one of the most memorable opening lines in rap history. "Fake thugs, no love, you get the slugs, CB4 gusto, your luck low, I didn't know till I was drunk though," Nas barks on the It Was Written's sassy opener. 2Pac felt the shots were directed at him and fired back at Nas on "Bomb First." The entire song was actually a message to Biggie, as Nas later revealed. The line "There's one life, one love, so there can only be one King" was a warning shot to Biggie, who dubbed himself King of New York at the time. Biggie promptly replied on "Kick in the Door" ("Your reign on top was shorter than Leprechauns).

08
of 25

"Rewind"

Nas.

Son, he kicked the whole story backwards. Do you know how much focus it takes to kick a story backwards and still have it make sense? Inspired by my favorite rapper, I tried my hand at this technique once. Years later, my brain is still hurting.

07
of 25

"One Love"

As you've sure guessed by now, Illmatic accounts for many of Nas' greatest songs. It's such an incessantly enjoyable album that you could justifiably include all 10 songs here. One of the highlights is "One Love," which finds Nas writing a letter to an incarcerated buddy over Q-Tip's jazz loop.

06
of 25

"The World Is Yours"

Nas.

Nas connected with Pete Rock on this hot rock from Illmatic. The song's message of self-belief is as much a directive to himself as it is to his future seed. "Thinkin' of a word best describin' my life/To name my daughter my strength/My son, the star, will be my resurrection/Born in correction all the wrong sh-t I did/He'll lead a right direction," Nas prays.

05
of 25

"Made You Look"

Nas.

Salaam Remi's spin on the classic "Apache" set up Nas for the post-battle smash, "Made You Look." "Ether" was Nas at his most combative, "Last Real N****a Alive" was his release therapy, and "Made You Look" was the perfect victory lap. Usain Bolt taunting his rivals at the finish line.

04
of 25

"Life's a B***h"

"Life's a B-Word" is as much a win for Nas as it is for then unknown AZ. The song benefits from the friendly competition among the two New York upstarts. AZ would go on to score a record deal after his deft turn on "Life's a B-tch."

03
of 25

It Ain't Hard to Tell

Nas - Illmatic
Nas - Illmatic. © Columbia

The ingredients that make "It Ain't Hard to Tell" one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time are the same ones that make Nas a candidate for hip-hop's Mt. Rushmore: vivid metaphors, poetic prowess and a terrifyingly self-assured flow. Large Professor concocts a neck snapper from Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," while Nas touts his street smarts, tossing stray jewels like confetti.

02
of 25

"Nas Is Like"

Nas
Nas. © Michael Loccisano

"Nas Is Like" is songwriting perfection. Nas spiffs up his nasty flow and makes his word dance in harmony with DJ Pemier's slick composition. A song so good it would fit right in with Illmatic.

01
of 25

"N.Y. State of Mind

Nas. Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Not your typical tribute, "N.Y. State of Mind" paints a nightmarish picture of a city enveloped in darkness and paranoia: guns, fiends, blunts and stick-up kids. No pretty hooks, no guests. Just Nas perched on the corner, painstakingly documenting the mayhem.