Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, more commonly known as Nas (formerly Nasty Nas and Escobar), born September 14, 1973 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, is a prominent American MC. The son of jazz musician Olu Dara, he was raised in the infamous Queensbridge housing projects in Queensbridge, New York. According to the Nasty Songfacts, as a teenager rapper, Nasir first went by the nickname Kid Wave before adopting his more commonly known alias of Nasty Nas. By the time he released his landmark solo debut album Illmatic in 1994, Jones was known as Nas.
Illmatic was a critically acclaimed bestseller and is widely considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time. He married R&B singer Kelis in 2005, they have one son together, and she filed for divorce on the 29th of April 2009. Nas was also a part of hip hop supergroup The Firm, which released one album.
In the years following the release of Illmatic, Nas pursued a more commercial direction, which resulted in wider success but decreased artistic credibility among critics and hip-hop purists. Furthermore, Nas' increased commercial success was accompanied by stylistic changes that fostered accusations of "selling out". Nevertheless, the LP Stillmatic is often credited for restoring Nas' credibility among fans. Since the success of Stillmatic, Nas continues to maintain a high profile within the hip hop community, and has pursued a decidedly progressive and personal aesthetic. While Nas' current artistic direction differs greatly from his most successful work, it has ensured that he remains one of the most respected and acclaimed contemporary rappers.
1973–1992: Childhood and early career
Nas was born in Brooklyn, New York, as the elder of Olu Dara and Fannie Ann Jones's two children; his brother Jabari (nicknamed "Jungle" because he was born in the Congo) is the younger of the two. The family lived for a time in Brooklyn, before moving to Queensbridge, the largest public housing project in the United States. Olu Dara left the household in 1986, when Nas was 13, and Ann Jones raised her two boys on her own. Nas dropped out of school in the eighth grade and began selling drugs on the streets of New York. He educated himself, reading about African culture and civilization, the Qur'an, the Bible and the Five Percent Nation. He also studied the origin of hip hop music, taping records that played on his local radio station. As a child, Nas had wanted to be an instrumentalist (at the age of three, Nas played his father's trumpet on the step of their Brooklyn home) and also a comic book artist. Shortly after his parents separated, Nas began to write short stories as he immersed himself deeper into hip-hop culture.
By his preteen years, he had settled on pursuing a career as a rapper, and as a teenager enlisted his best friend and upstairs neighbor Willie "Ill Will" Graham as his DJ. Nas first went by the nickname Kid Wave before adopting his more commonly known alias of Nasty Nas. Nas and Graham soon met hip-hop producer and Flushing Queens resident Large Professor, who introduced Nas to his group, Main Source. In 1991, Nas made his on-record debut with a verse on "Live at the BBQ", from Main Source's LP Breaking Atoms. Despite the substantial buzz for Nas in the underground scene, the rapper was rejected by major labels and was not signed to a recording deal. Nas and Graham continued to work together, but their partnership was cut short when Graham was shot and killed by a gunman in Queensbridge on May 23, 1992.
1992–1995: The recording and release of Illmatic
In mid-1992, Nas was approached by MC Serch of 3rd Bass, who became his manager and secured Nas a record deal with Columbia Records the same year. Nas made his solo debut on the single "Halftime" from Serch's soundtrack for the film Zebrahead. The single increased the buzz surrounding Nas and when MC Serch’s solo album is released later in the year, Nas’ standout appearance on "Back To The Grill" only intensified interest in his upcoming album, amid immense anticipation. Hailed as the second coming of Rakim, his rhyming skills attracted a significant amount of attention within the hip-hop community. However, many were concerned that Columbia, being a major label, would try to dilute his New York based style.
In 1994, Nas' debut album, Illmatic was finally released. Critically acclaimed and widely regarded as one of the premier rap albums ever created, Illmatic featured lyrics that portrayed stunning visual imagery and production courtesy of several producers . The album featured production from Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) and DJ Premier, as well as guest appearances from Nas' friend AZ and his father Olu Dara on the song "Life's a Bitch", Illmatic was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by critics, and is still highly regarded as one of the definitive hip-hop albums of all time. Notable songs on the album included "NY State of Mind" (produced by Premier), "The World Is Yours" (produced by Pete Rock), "One Love" (produced by Q-Tip) and "It Ain't Hard To Tell" (produced by Large Professor and featuring a sample of "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson). However, due in part to extensive bootlegging, the record sales fell below expectations.
Following Illmatic, Nas appeared on AZ's Doe Or Die album, and collaborated with his Queensbridge-associates, Mobb Deep, on their album, The Infamous. One notable achievement during this period was Nas' verse on "Verbal Intercourse" on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. After this appearance, Nas received a Source Quotable as he had the distinction of being the only non-Wu-Tang Clan member to be featured on one of the group's solo albums.
1996–1998: From It Was Written to The Firm
Columbia began to press Nas to work towards more commercial topics like the rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who had become successful by releasing street singles that still retained pop-friendly appeal. Nas traded manager MC Serch for Steve Stoute, and began preparation for his second LP, It Was Written, consciously working towards a crossover-oriented sound. It Was Written, chiefly produced by Poke and Tone of Trackmasters Entertainment, was released during the summer of 1996. Two singles, "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)" (featuring Lauryn Hill of The Fugees) and "Street Dreams" (a remix features R. Kelly) were instant hits. These songs were promoted by big-budget music videos directed by Hype Williams, making Nas a common name among mainstream hip-hop. Other notable tracks on the album included "The Message" and "I Gave You Power," which tells a story from the perspective of a gun. It Was Written also featured the debut of The Firm, a supergroup consisting of Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega. The album also introduced Nas's Mafioso-inspired character "Nas Escobar", who lived more of a Scarface/Casino-esque lifestyle. On the other hand, Illmatic, which, while having numerous references to Tony Montana and the theatrical hit featuring Al Pacino, was more about Nas' life as a teenager in the projects, hustling and smoking marijuana.
The Firm signed to Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment label, and began working on their debut album. Halfway through the production of the album, Cormega was fired from the group by Steve Stoute, who had unsuccessfully attempted to force Cormega to sign a deal with his management company. Cormega therefore became one of Nas' most vocal opponents, releasing a number of underground hip-hop singles dissing Nas, Stoute, and Nature, who was Cormega's replacement in The Firm. The Firm's The Album was finally released in 1997 to mixed reviews and lackluster sales and the members of the supergroup went their separate ways.
At about this time, Nas became a spokesperson for the Willie Esco urban clothing line, but had no other connection with the clothing line. He stopped promoting Willie Esco in 2000, dissatisfied with the company's operations. During the same period, Nas co-wrote and starred in Hype Williams' 1998 feature film Belly, which also featured DMX, Taral Hicks, and T-Boz of TLC among its cast.
1998–2000: I Am… to Nastradamus
In 1998, Nas began work on a double album to be entitled I Am…The Autobiography, which he intended as the middle ground between the extremes of Illmatic and It Was Written. The album was completed in early 1999, and a music video was shot for its lead single, Nas Is Like, produced by DJ Premier and featuring vocal samples from "It Ain't Hard to Tell". However, much of the LP was leaked in MP3 format onto the Internet, and Nas and Stoute quickly recorded enough substitute material to constitute a single-disc release.
The second single for I Am was "Hate Me Now," featuring Sean "Puffy" Combs (now "Diddy"), was used as an example by Nas' critics for moving towards commercial themes. Hype Williams shot an allegorical video for the single, which featured Nas and Puffy being crucified in a manner similar to Jesus; After the video was completed, Combs, a Catholic, requested his crucifixion scene be edited out of the video. However, the unedited copy of the "Hate Me Now" video made its way to MTV, and was premiered on April 15, 1999 on TRL. A furious Combs and his bodyguards allegedly made their way into Steve Stoute's office and assaulted him, at one point apparently hitting Stoute over the head with a champagne bottle. Stoute pressed charges, but he and Combs settled out-of-court that June.
Columbia had scheduled to release the pirated material from I Am under the title Nastradamus during the latter half of 1999, but, at the last minute, decided Nas should record an entirely new album for release. Nastradamus was therefore rushed to meet a November release date. Though critics were not kind to the album, it did result in a minor hit, the Timbaland-produced "You Owe Me," featuring R&B singer Ginuwine. The only pirated track from I Am… to make it onto Nastradamus was "Project Windows," featuring Ronald Isley. A number of the other bootlegged tracks later made their way onto The Lost Tapes, a collection of underground Nas songs that was released by Columbia in September 2002. The collection saw decent sales and received glowing reviews.
2000–2001: The Nas vs. Jay-Z rivalry and Stillmatic
The highly publicized rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z began as a rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z's protege, Memphis Bleek. On his debut album Coming of Age, Bleek made a song entitled "Memphis Bleek Is", which was similar in concept to Nas' single "Nas is Like". On the same album, Bleek recorded "What You Think Of That" featuring Bleek's mentor Jay-Z, which contains the refrain, "I'ma ball 'til I fall/what you think of that?". In retaliation, "Nastradamus", the title track from Nas' second 1999 album, featured a reference to "What You Think Of That". The lyrics state, "You wanna ball till you fall, I can help you with that/You want beef? I could let a slug melt in your hat." Memphis Bleek perceived the reference on "Nastradamus" as a diss, and therefore dissed Nas on the lead single for his The Understanding LP, My Mind Right".
QB's Finest was a compilation album that featured Nas and a number of other rappers from Queensbridge, including Mobb Deep, Nature, Littles, The Bravehearts (which included Nas' younger brother Jungle among its members), and Cormega, who had briefly reconciled with Nas. The album also featured guest appearances from Queensbridge hip-hop legends Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, and Marley Marl. Shan and Marley Marl both appeared on the lead single "Da Bridge 2001", which was based on Shan & Marl's 1986 recording "The Bridge". "Da Bridge 2001" also featured a response from Nas to Memphis Bleek, in which Nas called out most of the Roc-A-Fella Records roster, including Bleek, Damon Dash, Beanie Sigel, and Jay-Z.
Jay-Z responded to Nas' songs with an onstage swipe during the 2001 Hot 97 Summer Jam concert in New York City, when he premiered his song "Takeover." Initially, the song was to only be a Mobb Deep diss, only including one line about Nas near the end. Nevertheless, Nas recorded the "Stillmatic Freestyle," an underground single which sampled Rakim and Eric B.'s "Paid in Full" beat, and attacked Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella label. On his 2001 album, The Blueprint, Jay-Z rewrote "Takeover," dedicating half of the song to dissing Nas, claiming that he had a "…one hot album every ten year average" record (referring to Illmatic) that his flow was weak, and that he had fabricated his past as a hustler.
Nas responded with "Ether", the track begins with gunshots and a repeated, slowed-down sample of Tupac rapping "Fuck Jay-Z." (taken from Tupac's "Fuck Friends") In "Ether," Nas accuses Jay-Z of stealing ("biting") lyrics from The Notorious B.I.G. and brown-nosing Nas and other rappers for fame. Ether was included on Nas' fifth studio album, Stillmatic, released in December 2001. Stillmatic managed to be not only a critically-acclaimed comeback album, but a commercial success as well, albeit not on the level of It Was Written and I Am…; the album debutted at #7 on the Billboard album charts and featured the singles "Got Ur Self A…" and "One Mic." In terms of commercial success, Jay's The Blueprint was certified double-platinum, while Stillmatic went platinum.
Jay-Z responded to "Ether" with a freestyle entitled "Supa Ugly." going into detail about how he had sex with Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas' daughter Destiny. Nas dismissed the track by claiming that he was no longer with Bryan during the time the affair took place. In a recent interview, however, New York radio station Hot 97 settled the battle taking votes comparing "Ether" and "Supa Ugly," and Nas won with 58% while Jay-Z got 42% of the votes. By 2005, the two rappers had eventually ended their feud without violence or animosity. During Jay-Z's I Declare War - Power House concert, Jay-Z announced to the crowd, "It's bigger than 'I Declare War'. Let's go, Esco!" Nas then joined Jay-Z onstage, and the two then performed "Dead Presidents" together, which Jay-Z had sampled from Nas' song "The World is Yours."
2002–Present: From God's Son to Street's Disciple and beyond
In December 2002, Nas released the God's Son album. and its lead single, "Made You Look". The album debuted at #18 on the Billboard charts despite widespread internet bootlegging. Time Magazine named his album best hip-hop album of the year. Vibe Magazine gave it 4 stars and The Source gave it 4 mics. The second single, the inspirational "I Can", which reworked elements from Beethoven's "Fur Elise", became Nas' biggest hit to date during the spring and summer of 2003, garnering substantial radio airplay on urban, rhythmic, and top 40 radio stations, as well as on the MTV and VH1 music video networks. God's Son also includes several songs dedicated to memory of Nas' mother, who died of cancer in 2002. In 2003, Nas was featured on the Korn song "Play Me", from KoЯn's Take a Look in the Mirror LP.
Nas released his seventh studio album, the critically acclaimed double-disc Street's Disciple, on November 30, 2004. The album's first singles were "Thief's Theme" and "Bridging the Gap", which features his father Olu Dara on vocals. The album also includes "These are Our Heroes", which accuses prominent sports stars and actors such as Kobe Bryant, Lenny Henry, Tiger Woods, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. of neglecting their heritage and background in favour of white values. The videos for "Bridging the Gap" and "Just A Moment" received moderate airplay on MTV and BET. Although the album went platinum, its commercial profile was relatively low compared to the rapper's previous releases.
Nas was featured on Kanye West's album Late Registration on a song titled "We Major". West said the song was Jay-Z's favorite on the album, but West was unable to get Jay-Z to record a vocal for the final mix of the song. He also appeared on Damian Marley's song "Road to Zion" (which also featured newcomer The Game in the video, widening Nas' still growing universally appreciated raps) and several other songs such as "Death Anniversary" and "It Wasn't You" (featuring Lauryn Hill). In addition, Nas was most recently married to the R&B singer Kelis, who is mostly known for her work internationally, but nonetheless released great hits in the U.S. The couple wed on Jan. 8, 2005 in Atlanta, GA, after a two-year engagement.
During this time, Nas announced that his next album would be entirely self-produced and feature no other rappers, and would be titled Nasir, and later that the project would feature other producers after all and would be called Nasdaq: Dow Jones. Neither of these albums ever materialized.
At a free concert in Central Park, New York, Nas made a statement regarding the quality of 50 Cent's music. "this is the real shit, not that 50 Cent shit!" In response, 50 Cent included a stab at Nas by speaking negatively of his wife Kelis on his single "Piggy Bank," implying that Kelis was promiscuous and calling Nas a "sucker for love." Nas was quoted as saying that he feels no obligation to retaliate, remarking " got a good five to six more albums before I can really respond to him." Nas eventually decided to retaliate, and in July 2005 released "Don't Body Ya Self (MC Burial)", a song which taunts 50 Cent and his G-Unit crew, stating that 50 was "a sucka for death if I'm a sucka for love." However, despite all of this, Nas still claims to "have a lot of love towards 50," claiming 50 didn't understand his moves when they both were together at Columbia Records.
In January 2006, Nas signed a label deal with Jay-Z's Def Jam, further emphasizing the Jay-Z/Nas truce and raising expectations for a collaboration even higher. His album due in fall of 2006 will come out in a joint deal with this imprint and Columbia Records. He recently announced to MTV News that his album is to be named, "Hip Hop is Dead…the N," the N being a play on the word the "end." The title is supposed to reflect what some would term the current low quality of rap music. The highly anticipated album is due out in December 19th, 2006.
Musical style and Technique
Nas has long been famed for his creativity and storytelling prowess, which has earned him acclaim from both the hip-hop community and critics. In his early stages, from his first appearance on the Main Source's Breaking Atoms and throughout the recording of Illmatic, he was perhaps best known for his street-oriented topics, complex lyrical schemes (which often incorporated multi-syllabic internal rhymes), and witty phrasing and imagery. As he progressed and matured, Nas began to branch out into different subjects and developed a richer voice and slower rapping technique.
Following Illmatic's release, Nas developed a penchant for hyper-visual storytelling and topical creativity. For instance, "Undying Love" (featured on I Am…) is a tale of his wife's betrayal told in first person, "Rewind" (featured on Stillmatic) is a narrative in which a story is recited backwards, while on "I Gave You Power" (featured on It Was Written), Nas assumes the role of a gun who recounts brutal tales of murder and violence. Over the years Nas' style has changed significantly. In contrast to his previous work, Nas’ most recent material is distinctively socially aware and often politically inflammatory. Songs such as "I Can" (featured on God's Son) convey moral messages of black youth empowerment, while "These Are Our Heroes (Coon Picnic)" accuses several African-American celebrities of being Uncle Toms. Furthermore, controversial songs such as "My Country" and "A Message to the Feds (Fuck The Police II)" (which are featured on Stillmatic and Street's Disciple, respectively) question the conduct of the American government. Nas' views in his lyrics throughout his career have made references to Islam and the Five Percent Nation..