Nas: Off to the bank with a hip-hop, skip and jump

Nas has gone all ghetto fabulous. Has he sold out, asks Nick Edwards
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Hip-hop as a musical form is now over 25 years old, so it is surprising that Nas, who is described by Radio 1's Rap Show host Tim Westwood as "its ultimate lyricist", is not a better known name.

Having grown up in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects of New York, Nasir "Nas" Jones describes his options as limited. "When I was at school you always had friends on the corner selling drugs. So it was either that, hoop or hip-hop," he says. His father was jazz trumpeter, Olu Dara. "I just soaked his music up and hip-hop was around me 24/7. There was no other choice. It saved me."

Nas dropped out of school in the ninth grade, but it was there that he met Paul Mitchell who was to become hip-hop pioneer Large Professor. Mitchell gave the 18-year-old Nas his first break, rapping a single verse on his critically acclaimed Main Source LP Breakin' Atoms. This gave Nas, who was still living with his mother in Queensbridge, the opportunity to make his debut album Illmatic. Such was the impact of his visceral delivery and inspiring lyricism, that Nas created what many, such as Claude Grunitzky, editor of Trace magazine, claim "could be the greatest hip-hop album of all time".

The album chronicled survival in the housing projects, managing not only to depict their brutal physical realities, but also the mental state of somebody trapped in them. Integrity to the musical form and the gritty realities it described was once hip-hop's most sacred ethic – "keeping it real" – and Nas epitomised this. As he says, "We'd be doing this with or without a record contract." Despite all its critical praise Illmatic only sold 200,000 copies and when, two years later, Nas returned to the world of hip-hop, things had changed. Ruled now by artists like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G and Snoop Doggy Dog it flaunted the gangster myth and all its trappings over radio-friendly beats, selling multi-platinum discs. Though lacking the introspection and lyrical qualities of Nas's verse, these artists set a precedent in hip-hop that shows no sign of lessening.

Four albums and over six million sales later, Nas is barely recognisable to fans of Illmatic. Having scored global hits with Lauryn Hill and Puff Daddy, made Hollywood movie soundtracks Men In Black and becoming a heavily rotated MTV regular he now symbolises the new commerical and materialistic guise of hip-hop as much as he had done its previous one. "I could never make another Illmatic," he says. "Twenty years of my life went into that album. I wouldn't even try to."

So like the heroes he lists – Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy – he is now producing a back catalogue of questionable quality while making an extremely large amount of money. His forte now seems to be in selling, whether it's the acts on his recently established record label Nas & Ill Will Records, his clothing line Ecso, or the new action movie Ticker in which he co-stars alongside Steven Seagal. What he calls "the game" has replaced the hunger that drove him on Illmatic. "When I was in the 'bridge [Queensbridge] I found the truth and told people about it. Now I've seen the world, my job is to seek the truth out and bring it back to the ghetto."

A worthy sentiment, but is it not just spin that he hopes we will buy into? He even tries to make a virtue out of what is basically the dictionary definition of selling out. "I'm a role model to kids by being brave and not listening to what people or certain magazines tell me to do, by not being afraid to do songs that'll get played on the radio ..."

In naming his fifth solo album Stillmatic, Nas is clearly attempting to regain some credibility, but the only time he executes a verse as the Nas that fans of Illmatic would recognise is on the title track in which he engages in a slanging match with fellow NYC rapper Jay-Z. Sadly, it seems that petty gangster mentality conflicts, which help sell records of course, are all that makes the once poetic hero of hip-hop rise to the occasion these days.

'Stillmatic' is available on Columbia. The single 'Got Ur Self A ...' is out on 21 January