THE LOST NAS ALBUM
THAT FOREVER CHANGED HIS CAREER
When Nas first released Illmatic, it was like the prodigal son had returned to save Hip-Hop; the poetic, vivid imagery that he rhymed with was like a breath of fresh air, and hope for the future of the genre. However, although the album was an instant critical success, that did not translate into sales. What is said to be considered one of the "best rap albums ever", took seven years to go platinum. In fact, after his debut, Nas became a star, but he was actually broke. When it came time for his second offering, It Was Written, Nas and his label took a different approach to reassure that not only would there NOT be a sophomore jinx critically, but commercially they would surpass Illmatic, and they succeeded.
It Was Written was a smash; it combined the unique rhyming from Nas' first album with a more polished shine to it. With the classic song, "If I Ruled The World" featuring Lauryn Hill, which would go on to be Nas' most successful single to date, It Was Written would carry his career to new heights. After the tragic deaths of Tupac and B.I.G., by 1997 Nas was at the top of the rap game, and although he delivered on his first two albums, it is said by many, an artist's third album is what defines a legacy (ie. Kanye's Graduation, Eminem's Eminem Show, Outkast's Aquemini), and unfortunately that is where things went left for Nas.
Nas proved he could rap with the best, he proved he could sell with the best, now all that was left to prove was that he could provide the same consistency, and that he was up for the task. I Am: The Autobiography was initially supposed to be a double-disc album, and the hype surrounding its release was tremendous. Nas, who customarily took his time crafting albums, locked himself away prepping the project. Everything was going as planned until bootleg albums starting popping up all over. It's reported that this album was one of the first wide-spread bootleg scandals, even bigger than his debut, one in which a music critic once said he "discovered 60,000 copies of in a garage". Therefore, out of panic coming from the label, Nas was urged to scrap the entire album and start recording fresh, however he was still under contract deadlines to produce a project. As as result, he disregarded half of the recordings, split the remainder of the songs into two separate albums with added filler tracks, and in 1999, three years following the release of It Was Written, I Am and Nastradamus were both released, with mixed reviews to say the least.
Nastradamus was actually the first Nas album I ever heard. Me being a seven-year-old kid, still riding high off of my favorite movie at the time, Belly, it was a great album to me. Of course, as I got older, learned and understood more about rap, discovered Nas' discography, realized the controversy around "You Owe Me" (which I still love, I don't care what J. Cole or anyone says), I realized it wasn't one of his best... but I still say it is a solid project, especially in the grand schemes of a legacy. More than anything, regardless what I may think, I realized how that album, and I Am, negatively effected Nas' career.
As hip-hop history goes, following the death of Tupac and Biggie, Nas was next to wear the crown, and a guy named Jay Z was hardly notable. Of course, now people can look back and realize how great Reasonable Doubt was, is, but when it first came out in 1996, not only did it not sell, but listeners did not gravitate towards it, especially in comparison to It Was Written. Even when he came back around the very next year with his second album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1, Hov still failed to capture fans. The general consensus was that he could never be Biggie or rap as good as Nas. It was not until that critical third release, Vol. 2.... Hard Knock Life, that Jay Z finally figured out his formula to success. By 1998, while Nas was recording his third album, Jay Z had already released three consecutive albums in three years and fans were starting to really take notice. Once Nas fumbled the releases of I Am & Nastradamus in 1999, and Jay Z released another successful album, Vol. 3, The Life and Times Of S. Carter, the tides of the rap game completely changed.
Jay Z was looked at as the king of rap, with DMX as his only true competitor, and Nas nearly irrelevant, seemingly a has-been (we know how quickly fans forget). Hov would go on to start "Rocawear" and release The Dynasty Roc La Familia, putting a spotlight on his emerging all-star label. By the turn of the century, he had the pulse of the culture in his grasp. Meanwhile, Nas released a couple more sub-par projects and fell under the radar for awhile. It was not until Hov breathed life back into him with their historical beef in 2001, that things changed for Nas. After Jay Z dropped "Takeover", many looked at the beef as an unfair match, as if he was kicking a man while he was already down, and there was no way Nas could ever come back. Then "Ether" came out, and the rest is history.
Regardless of how the beef went, or who won, Nas was back on the map, able to regain his ground and get his career back on track. However, regardless if Nas was able to go on and release multiple great projects (Life is Good is arguably his best album ever), he was never able to step out of Hov's shadow. No matter what, once took Jay Z snatched that spot from Nas, he never let it go and was always more successful, recognized, and applauded. I'm sure Nas has noticed that, but at this point I doubt he cares, or if he ever truly cared.
Years later, I think there is something to be said about this situation-- as far as the career of Nas goes. If he was able to release that third album how he planned it, would Jay Z be as big as he is? Would Nas be bigger? Have you ever even heard the songs from that initial album? I have, and they are pretty great; as a whole, better than both of Nas' releases of 1999. All of the songs are scattered around on YouTube, it just takes a little searching and sorting, and you can listen to that album in its entirety the way that Nas initially intended... but we will never know for sure, what could have been.
I Am: The Autobiography [Original Track-listing]
1. Fetus (Belly Button Window) [The Lost Tapes]
2. NY State Of Mind Pt. II [I Am...]
3. Life Is What You Make It (feat. DMX)
4. Small World [I Am...]
5. Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive [Unreleased]
6. Poppa Was a Playa [The Lost Tapes]
7. Nas Is Like [I Am...]
8. Blaze A 50 [The Lost Tapes]
9. Favor For A Favor (ft. Scarface) [I Am...]
10. We Will Survive [I Am...]
11. Some Of Us Have Angels [Nastradamus]
12. Project Windows (feat. Ronald Isley) [Nastradamus]
13. Day Dreaming, Stay Scheming [Unreleased]
14. Sometimes I Wonder (feat. Nature) [Unreleased]
15. Undying Love [I Am...]
1. After Life (Intro) [Unreleased]
2. Amongst Kings [Unreleased]
3. Life We Chose [Nastradamus]
4. Drunk By Myself [The Lost Tapes]
5. Pray (Bonus track on cassette version of I Am...)
6. God Love Us [Nastradamus]
7. Ghetto Prisoners [I Am...]
8. Last Words (feat. Millennium Thug aka Nashawn) [Nastradamus]
9. Family (feat. Mobb Deep) [Nastradamus]
10. Come Get Me [Nastradamus]
11. Find Your Wealth [QB's Finest]
12. U Gotta Love It [The Lost Tapes]
13. Wanna Play Rough [Unreleased]
14. The Rise And Fall [Unreleased]
15. My Worst Enemy [Unreleased]
Quedé Howard, Dinner Land Network