Nas - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Inside of the linear notes to Nas' classic debut Illmatic are a series of photos depicting typical urban life, such as a homeless encampment, several police officers patrolling the projects as well as Nas himself looking, as if he just woke up, showered in uncomfortable sunlight. They are simple photos but they're also vivid. In a sense, this duality is a metaphor for Nas' body of work as a whole. Subtle yet, upon closer inspection, vividly jarring.
Nas was born Nasir Jones to the famed Cornet-payer Olu Dara and Fannie Ann Jones in Brooklyn. At the age of four, Nas and his family moved to the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing unit in North America. Nas dropped out of school early on but continued to study African culture as well as divine writings such as Islamic Hebrew scrolls, the Qur'an and the Bible. Nas' fascination with religion has remained a constant motif within his music. As a teenager, Nas was steadily blooming into a rapper. He originally went by the name Kid Wave and soon after took the name Nasty Nas. Nas tabbed his friend, Willy Graham, his DJ. Nas continued to work with Graham, who was going by Ill Will. The pair garnered a decent amount of street buzz. However, in 1992 Graham was fatally gunned down.
Nas' lyrical dexterity would soon link him up with a mentor in MC Serch (formally of Hip Hop group 3rd Bass). Serch put Nas on his single "Back to the Grill" alongside himself, Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone. Despite being largely ignored by record labels, Nas' appearance on Main Source's "Live at the BBQ" started to feed the buzz which was slowly bubbling around the young MC. Nas' solo debut came about with the single "Halftime" which was put onto the Zebrahead Soundtrack (Sony-1992).
"Halftime" would also be featured on Nas' monumental debut album Illmatic (Columbia-1994). Arguably the most lionized Hip Hop album of all time, the crisp and nimble rhymes spewed by Nas on Illmatic would establish the young Queens rapper as a Hip Hop messiah of sorts; Nas is often referred to as the second coming of the legendary MC, Rakim. Illmatic was the first album to be awarded "five Mics" in The Source magazine. Featuring production by essentially a who's who of New York producers of the time: Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, and L.E.S. Illmatic featured Nas' unadulterated narratives of his bleak Queensbridge surroundings presented through his confidently raspy flow. Other tracks such as "life's a Bitch" and "The World is Yours" showed the dichotomy between Nas' perceived nihilism versus the hope he harbored for a life beyond the projects. Îllmatic also features Nas' father Dara playing trumpet on "Life's a Bitch." This track also hears the album's sole lyrical guest appearance from fellow New York rapper AZ. While Illmatic helped stamp Nas as one of Hip Hop's elite MCs, some regard the massive praise snagged by the album as a curse, in addition to a gift.
Nas rode his success from Illmatic with several significant appearances. He lent his rhymes to several tracks on AZ's Doe or Die (EMI-1995) and The Infamous (Loud-1995) from fellow Queensbridge rappers Mobb Deep, where on the track "Eye for an Eye" he first introduces his mafia-alias Nas Escobar (inspired by infamous drug king Pablo Escobar) which he would frequently refer to himself as. Nas also became the first non-Wu Tang Clan member to appear on a Wu-Tang Clan member's album with "Verbal Intercourse" from Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (Loud-1995) where he would continue the nourish the Nas Escobar character. There was no doubt that Illmatic would be difficult, if not impossible to live up to. 1996 marked the release of Nas' second album It Was Written (Columbia-1996). The album proved to be Nas' most commercially lucrative album but the initial reviews were split. Many purists felt that Nas had sold out. This was primarily because of his more commercial-approach; the production had a less grimy feel and singles such as "Street Dreams" and the Lauryn Hill-assisted "If I Ruled the World" were far more radio-friendly than anything off of Illmatic. Other critics, who had seen Nas as a champion of the underground, felt he was abandoning this persona in favor of furthering mafia-oriented themes with his Nas Escobar alias. Criticisms aside, It Was Written remains a significant album in terms of what was going on, in Hip Hop, at the time. Nas' sophomore album was released in the thick of the tension developing between artists from the East Coast and West Coast. On "Nas is Coming" the Queens-bred Nas is joined by West Coast mainstay Dr. Dre. The two begin the track by musing about how tiresome they find the supposed West Coast/East Coast feuding to be. The track "The Message" also sparked anger from 2-Pac, which resulted in several aggressive tirades from 2-Pac. Some of the harsher reactions to the album have since lightened up and It Was Written is seen as one of Nas' best albums.
Several of the producers from It Was Written had the idea of combining the forces of Nas with Foxy Brown, AZ and Cormega (who would be fired and replaced by Nature) collectively calling themselves The Firm. The Firm: The Album (Aftermath-1997) received fairly uninspiring reviews. The Firm disbanded and is barely an afterthought with its former members.
Nas intended his third solo album I Am…(Columbia-1999) to be a double-disc autobiography. However, the album became one of the first albums to fall prey to internet-bootlegging and Nas abandoned many of the tracks he had originally planned on using. Being forced to scrap the autobiography concept, I Am… served to be a middle-ground between the divisive It Was Written and the beloved Illmatic. With assistance from commercially palatable artists like DMX, Puff Daddy and Aaliyah, I Am… debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. The epic single “Hate Me Now” featured Puff Daddy and heard a usually mellow Nas getting uncharacteristically emotional. The video for the song also caused a stir as Puff Daddy had second thoughts about being portrayed as a Jesus Christ-like figure in the graphic video. Puff Daddy allegedly physically assaulted Nas’ manager after unsuccessfully requesting that this depiction be edited out. Nas’ label Columbia had planned on releasing the scrapped material from I Am… on a late 1999 release titled Nastradamus but Nas decided that he would record an entirely new album under the same name instead. Many of the discarded songs were put onto The Lost Tapes (Columbia-2002).
In the end, the only bootlegged track from I Am… to appear on Nastradamus (Columbia-1999) was “Project Windows.” Perhaps due to the rushed nature of the album, Nastradamus is largely hailed as Nas’ weakest effort. Probably thanks to the help of the Ginuwine-assisted “You Owe Me” Nastradmus did manage to eventually go platinum.
Nas, who despite some critical failures, was still considered one of Hip Hop’s most skilled lyricists. However, he soon came under fire from perhaps the most prolific rapper of the time, Jay-Z, in what would prove to be one of Hip Hop’s most monumental feuds. On “The Takeover” from Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella-2001) Jay-Z preys on Nas’ inability to recapture the glory of Illmatic, essentially calling the longevity of Nas’ career erroneous. Nas' fifth album Stillmatic (Columbia-2001) contained a scathing response to Jay-Z claiming that Jay-Z had plagiarized lyrics from the late Notorious B.I.G. Nas also flung accusations of misogyny and selling out, towards Jay-Z. The rivalry has since been mollified. Perhaps inspired by Jay-Z and other's criticisms, Nas appeared bent on re-igniting the spirit that made Illmatic the classic that it is. A large amount of the production was done by DJ Premiere, Large Professor and L.E.S., three of the audio architects that created the gritty soundscape of Illmatic seven years earlier. The album was instantly hailed as the best Nas album since Illmatic and Stillmatic received “Five Mics” from The Source. Nas is one of only a few artists to hold two “Five-Mic Ratings”
Heavily inspired by Nas’ mother, who passed away in early 2002, God’s Son (Columbia-2002) would be Nas’ most personal album. She serves as an inspiration for several songs on God’s Son such as “Dance” and “Warrior Song.” God’s Son is significant in that the Queens rapper had long-built his reputation upon the objective narratives of street-life; for Nas to suddenly emotionally involve himself into these explicit landscapes was a departure.
In he next couple of years, Nas married singer Kelis and released perhaps his most socially aware album Street’s Disciple (Columbia-2004). In 2006 Nas relased Hip Hop is Dead (Def Jam-2006) which featured a collaboration with one-time nemesis Jay-Z on the song “Black Republican.”
Following controversy with conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, Nas geared up for one what would have been one of the most controversial album releases ever. Nas originally intended to call his ninth studio album Nigger. This decision was backed by many rappers but met with severe dissent by the likes of Jesse Jackson. Amidst the controversy, Nas changed the album titled merely to Untitled (Def Jam-2008). Despite the lack of the risqué album title, the album was another critical success for Nas.
In Hip Hop circles, the debate over the greatest MC of all-time, may never be solved. However, Nas is surely a name who belongs in the mix. Despite criticisms of a lack of loyalty to underground origins, Nas’ wordplay has remained complex and thorough and love them or hate them, Nas’ narratives remain some of the most vivid, cementing Nas as one of the greatest MCs of all time.