‘I made it out’: How Nas escaped poverty and violence to become hip-hop’s greatest rapper (2022)

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It’s been nearly 30 years since Illmatic dropped out of the projects of Queensbridge and set the standard for all to follow. Most of today’s hip-hop chart toppers – Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Polo G – were not even alive when a 20-year-old Nasir Jones, the son of the great jazz cornetist Olu Dara, made rap fans succumb to his nihilistic poetry, multisyllabic rhymes and street philosophy.

This Friday sees the release of King’s Disease 2, his 13th solo studio album, which comes in the same year that he won his first Grammy Award – surely a nod to the great rapper’s whole body of work as much as that individual album.

It’s not been an easy road to “Godfather” status for the 47-year-old. There was the trauma of his mum dying of cancer in his arms and the ordeal of a threatened boycott of his ninth album after it was originally titled with a racial epithet.

He has seen comrades, colleagues and collaborators not reach middle age. The list of ill-fated Nineties rap luminaries is long: Tupac, Biggie, DMX, Prodigy, Guru, ODB, Phife Dawg.

The Queens native has not been immune to controversy either, from his vicious feud with Jay-Z to lyrics expressing anti-vaccination views to going to war with Fox News and their myriad white supremacist hosts.

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Nas was also married to R&B star, Kelis, for four years from 2005. Their relationship was a volatile one, with the singer accusing him of being mentally and physically abusive during their time together. Nas denied the allegations and claimed that she subjected him to “very hostile behaviour and verbal abuse” as well as “physical violent attacks”. He rapped extensively about their fraught and toxic marriage on 2012’s Life is Good, often applying brutal, vicious imagery to describe his ex-wife.

That he has come out of the allegations unscathed is a symptom of a wider problem within the music industry and hip hop. These attitudes lead to Russell Simmons appearing on the Verzuz battle between Method Man and Redman; to LA Reid still being one of the most powerful men in the music industry, working with artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Big Boi; and it’s also what allows DaBaby to perform with Tory Lanez despite the latter being charged with shooting Megan Thee Stallion just last year (Lanez has denied the allegation).

But here he is, still fiery, still insightful, marked by a lifetime of living of unbearable poverty turned extreme wealth, the trappings of police violence and the inescapable belief that his life should have turned out very differently.

He told the Financial Times before his recent Grammy win: “All I could see in my dreams was guns. I kept having nightmares about cops, and this was a time where I was removed from the hood but I survived. I made it out.”

‘I made it out’: How Nas escaped poverty and violence to become hip-hop’s greatest rapper (1)

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The same interview saw him incapable of celebrating rap’s Nineties glory days of which he was an integral part: “It felt like the danger from the block was still right around the corner. We were young men who had to grow up so fast and there was a lot of responsibility on our shoulders.”

As listeners of Illmatic and the rest of his discography know, Nas was always an old head with a baby face, more philosopher than hustler – but he is also a linguistic genius, capable of bending words, rhymes and syllables at will.

Even the verbally dexterous Eminem is in awe at Nas’s technical abilities, particularly on “Halftime”, as he told Zane Lowe: “One of the reasons that I picked ‘Halftime’ [as one of my favourite tracks] is because there’s some rhyme schemes on there that most rappers to this day probably can’t do and that’s one of the things that has made Nas so great over his career.”

He added: “When he said ‘Because when I blast the herb, that’s my word, I’ll be slaying them fast, doing this, that, and the third. But chill, pass the Andre, and let’s slay. I bag b****** up at John Jay and hit a matinee’... he was rhyming entire sentences. And I’m like, ‘What the f*** is this?’”

Slim Shady, who officially collaborates with Nas for the first time on King’s Disease 2, also spoke of the influence of Illmatic on a whole: “Everybody knows that is a classic, essential album, I don’t know where you place that in hip hop, but it’s got to be at the top.”

The winds of change come quickly to the music industry, especially in hip hop, where the genre is young and ever evolving, and gimmicky fads are a dime a dozen, what allows Nas to endure is that he can be everything but still be Nas. He exists outside the time of trends. He flirted with the maximalist bling of Puff Daddy (or whatever he calls himself these days) in the late Nineties and is equally adept at playing the gangster and the activist.

Nas himself is blind to the labels placed on him and his music: “I’ve been called everything. Gangsta rap. I’ve been called conscious rap. You know, everything. Whoever feels like calling it whatever they want to call it, that’s on them.”

He also sleeps soundly without thought for the young guns coming up, and is ambivalent to much of contemporary mainstream rap – not unlike a lot of the crowd that came of age in the Nineties. While King’s Disease featured youngsters Fivio Foreign and Lil Durk, he admitted: “I appreciate what’s out there, but there’s no one keeping me up at night. I hear a new rap record and think it’s great, but I don’t listen to it the next week.”

The one new artist he has singled out for praise was the late Pop Smoke, a 21st-century hybrid of DMX and 50 Cent: “We were happy to see that young king come up. He was a breath of fresh air. The drill movement in London, Chicago, and New York is really exciting.”

While much of contemporary hip hop bears little resemblance to the complex, detailed rhymes of Nas, it’s impossible to imagine the music landscape without him. Kendrick Lamar, the first non-classical or jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, is effervescent in his celebration of Nas and how Illmatic forged his storytelling abilities: “I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for that album, truthfully.”

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J Cole, too, has said he “idolises” the elder statesman of rap, even making the track “Let Nas Down” after the New Yorker said he hated Cole’s single “Work Out”.

It’s been a long time since Nas was that kid growing up in a tiny apartment hooked on jazz and soul records, the fires of street life raging against the walls. He couldn’t have known the world was his – but it was.

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