/ 6 January 2023

Nas goes from golden child to elder statesman of hip-hop

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The OG: Rapper Nas has a stellar 30-year career that shows no signs of slowing down. His latest album is King’s Disease III. Photo: Michael Ioccisano/Getty Images

On the song WTF SMH, off his latest critically acclaimed 2022 album King’s Disease III, New York emcee Nas raps, “I opened so many doors, my launchpad was Main Source, you couldn’t interpret the lesson we took the same course, I grabbed everything and the shit that I came for, as soon as the DJ played Big Daddy Kane ‘Raw’…”. With these lines, Nas manages to capture not only the beginnings and influences of his career but the upward trajectory it has taken since.

King’s Disease III is Nas’ 15th solo album in a career spanning  30 years. Released on 11 November 2022, the album has received rave reviews from fans and critics alike. It earned a universal acclaim meta­score of 88% on Metacritic. 

“With King’s Disease III, the New York rapper has put the seal on a strong album trilogy that proves that, three decades in, he’s still a force to be reckoned with,” wrote Nial Smith in the British film, music and culture site New Musical Express (NME).

You will be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop OG still releasing albums that garner the same kind of reverence as Nas’ recent releases in the last two years.

As if churning out classics in what should be the winter of his career is not enough, on 21 November 2021, Nas became an instructor on the online subscription platform MasterClass. Teaching hip-hop lyricism and storytelling, Nas introduced his class by speaking on how growing up in Queensbridge, New York, influenced his music writing process. 

“I grew up in New York city, the streets were paved with different colours of broken glass — our bikes would catch flats a lot. But it was the terrain of champions. Making music and rhymes was extremely therapeutic for what I was seeing in the streets. Hip-hop was always truthful, it uncovered the ugliness in American society from a man on the ground … as a young man, my raps were about me still maintaining my sanity on a beautiful level in this ugly world.”

Through this endeavour, he joins esteemed experts in various fields, such as Martin Scorsese (filmmaking), Anna Wintour (fashion journalism), Hans Zimmer (composer), Malcolm Gladwell (author) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysics) among others.

Born Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones in Queens, New York, Nas is a rapper’s rapper. The prototype emcee who cut his teeth filling in for iconic rapper Rakim when he couldn’t make it to the studio back in the late 1980s. He would go on to receive tutelage from rap royalty such as Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, making these pioneers the ones whose shoulders he stands on. He is now a year shy of turning 50 and it is almost inconceivable that he is still releasing compelling music that receives unanimous acclaim. 

Nas’ revitalisation came during the height of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic when he linked up with producer extraordinaire Hit-Boy. While he had never worked with one producer for the entirety of an album, barring 2018’s disappointing Kanye West-helmed seven-track project Nasir, the allegiance became a rewarding meeting of the minds. 

Hit-Boy’s production propelled Nas into a genius period reminiscent of the work Michael Jackson put out while working closely with Quincy Jones — the three-album run of Off The Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), and Bad (1987). 

In its review for Kings’ Disease III, music blog Consequence Of Sound said, “Nas also recognises that the lessons never stop coming as he gets older. One of those lessons came in the form of hooking up with a producer 14 years younger than him from the West Coast who, despite initial head scratches, became his most prolific collaborator.”

Between 2020 and 2022, Nas released a trilogy of Hit-Boy-produced albums, King’s Disease (2020), King’s Disease II (2021) and King’s Disease III (2022). In this time, he even earned what had been elusive to him his whole career, a Best Hip-Hop Album Grammy for the first instalment in the trilogy — King’s Disease

Magic (2021) was a surprise release tucked in between the second and third King’s Disease albums, also receiving overwhelming acclaim. 

The beat goes on: Despite inconceivably being overlooked at the 1995 Source Awards, where he did not win any awards for his seminal work Illmatic, Nas continued to make music, and also learned to diversify his interests, investing in tech startups and a New York restaurant chain, for example. Photo: Christopher Plk/Getty Images

What these albums illustrated is that Nas is unequivocally one of the best emcees rapping today, and is firmly standing head and shoulders above all of his peers. 

Since debuting on rap group Main Source’s single Live At The BBQ in 1991 and then releasing his seminal debut album Illmatic in 1994, Nas’ influence in hip-hop has been undeniable.

These novice performances are all it took for Nas to be immediately declared the “Golden Child” of hip-hop by peers and fans alike. His prowess led to him being credited with changing the landscape of hip-hop through his ideation when making songs, his cadence when rapping, as well as his poetic lyrical style when writing rhymes. Rappers such as Lupe Fiasco, Eminem, Common, Jay-Z and a plethora of other greats all point to Nas as a major influence in one way or the other. 

Nas’ vocation as a rapper has not been without downsides. He has had his fair share of controversy, particularly regarding his private life. The mother of his first child, Carmen Bryan, famously wrote a tell-all book, It’s No Secret: From Nas to Jay-Z, from Seduction to Scandal, A Hip-Hop Helen of Troy Tells All. In the book, she details her affair with Nas’ arch-nemesis at the time, Jay-Z, as well as Nas’ struggles with domestic violence. 

Back in 2018, Nas’ ex-wife, singer Kelis, hinted at similar allegations of domestic violence against Nas. In an exclusive interview with Hollywood Unlocked CEO Jason Lee, Kelis revealed what led to her divorcing the rapper while pregnant with their son, Knight. 

“We had really intense highs and really intense lows. It was never normal. An intense high would be when money was rolling in. An intense low … we had a lot. It was really dark. A lot of drinking. A lot of mental and physical abuse and it got to the point where if I wasn’t pregnant, I might have stayed with him. I was pregnant and it was a mess and I felt like I wasn’t going to bring a child into this. Did he hit me? Mmm-hmmm. Did I hit him back? Mmm-hmmm.” 

Nas and Kelis, once a hip-hop power couple, eventually ended up in a messy divorce involving a contentious custody battle for their son. 

Nas would go on to appear on the cover of his critically acclaimed 2012 album Life Is Good, sitting in a contemplative mood, with a part of the dress Kelis wore on their wedding day draped over his lap. 

“I found it in my house and thought, it’s going somewhere! Either on the cover of my album, or burning in a garbage can … I was angry when I first found it. Hurt and angry — but I don’t think she left it deliberately to hurt me. It’s just part of the dress, so I don’t know where the rest of it is. But it made all the sense in the world for me to … hold on to that.” Nas told The Guardian

Kelis on the other hand wasn’t all that moved, telling The New York Times, “It’s not even the dress. The joke behind that is that it’s the slip of the petticoat to my dress. I think when I moved out I just left it. That’s all he had, poor thing … He gave me a heads-up like two days before it was released … I don’t really care … I don’t really listen to his music anyway.”

The I Can songmaker did move on from his failed marriage with Kelis. Post-Kelis, he most notably had a short-lived romance with rapper Nicki Minaj in 2017. 

Much more interestingly, though, Nas had a special friendship with legendary soul singer Amy Winehouse, who tragically died in 2011. It is rumoured that Winehouse had a crush on Nas and that her 2006 single Me and Mr Jones off her album Frank was actually about the famed Queens rapper. 

Nas and Amy famously only ever hung out for one weekend in person (in London), but had built a strong relationship in the months prior, over phone conversations after being introduced by producer Salaam Remi, with whom both worked closely. The two even shared a birthday, 14 September. 

“When I got the call that she passed, it really took me down.” 

While they had worked on a few musical ideas, the pair only had two songs together: Cherry Wine and Like Smoke, both released posthumously. 

A confessed recluse, Nas was a reluctant superstar from the onset. Legend has it that after the disappointing sales of his first album Illmatic, and lack of accolades upon its release, he was seriously considering quitting rap. 

At the 1995 Source Awards, Nas did not win any of the awards he was nominated for despite Illmatic’s overwhelming critical acclaim. Writing in his book Mo’ Meta Blues, founder and drummer of hip-hop band The Roots Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson says, “The ideology of what I considered ‘real’ hip-hop died at the 1995 Source Awards. I was literally at its funeral — I sat three rows behind Nas … Nas’ body language that day told the whole story of where we were about to go. The more he got ignored for Illmatic, I literally saw his body melt in his seat. Almost like he was ashamed. He just looked so defeated. I was like, ‘Yo, he’s not gonna be the same after this shit.’ None of us were the same after that day.”

Thankfully, Nas never quit. Instead, he forged ahead carving out a lane as one of the greatest rappers of all time. With hip-hop solidifying itself as one of the most popular and profitable musical genres in America, Nas followed suit and learned from other rappers (such as his former nemesis Jay-Z, Puffy, Dr Dre et al) to diversify his interests and pivot into business. 

He has over time built a viable business profile that involves varied industries such as tech startup investments through his venture capital firm Queensbridge Venture Partners, co-owning the rap label Mass Appeal, having a stake in a New York chain of restaurants called Sweet Chick, as well signing on to narrate television shows and documentaries such as Netflix’s The Get Down and A&R network’s Origins of Hip-Hop.

Perhaps one of his greatest honours remains as the academic assimilation of his seminal work Illmatic into the annals of American literature and creative arts. Nas’ debut album has been canonised by esteemed academics such as Michael Eric Dyson, whose book Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic is a close reading of Nas’ album through scholarly essays that function as a guide for exploring the album and its lessons on race, gender, and hip-hop culture. 

In 2013, Harvard University, through its Hip-Hop Archives and WEB institute, established and funded the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Foundation, whose aim is to fund scholars and artists interested in the arts connected to hip-hop at the university. It is these feathers in Nas’ cap that graduate him to the elder statesman in hip-hop he is today.