Nasir Jones, known professionally as Nas, rose to prominence in the music world of the 1990s on the way to becoming widely recognized as one of the most influential and outspoken performers in urban culture. The Queens, NY-born son of jazz musician Olu Dara, Nas stirred critical waves with his first album, Illmatic, in 1994. The record signaled a stylistically new, innovative voice and eventually became the first of what would be eight platinum records. Follow-up records drew less critical laud, obscured at points by a sniping rivalry with fellow New York artist Jay-Z, but Nas became a minor renaissance man, spearheading offshoot projects by other artists, collaborating with director Hype Williams on the 1998 crime drama "Belly," and producing, scripting and starring in the indie drama "Sacred is the Flesh" (2001). He reestablished critical darling status with early 2000s albums God's Son, Hip Hop is Dead and, most particularly, his politically charged 2008 untitled release. As he matured, he used his public platform to challenge the continued racial stratification in the U.S. and the oligopoly of the music industry by engaging in wars-of-words both with African-American leaders and, in a much-publicized feud, reactionary commentator Bill O'Reilly. Nas rose from the humblest of roots to make himself one of the best-respected artists of his genre, credited with altering the rhythmic flow of hip-hop, as well as a true poet of his generation.
He was born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones on Sept. 14, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY, one of two sons of Olu Dara, longtime jazz and blues cornetist, and Fannie Ann Jones, an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. He grew up in the massive Queensbridge housing projects in Long Island City, both a troubled zone riddled with drug-related crime and a hotbed of musical culture, particularly the burgeoning medium of hip-hop. Nasir immersed himself in the latter, heavily influenced by neighbor Willy Graham, a.k.a. Ill Will. Nasir's parents divorced in 1985, and he quit school in the ninth grade, starting to perform under the name Kid Wave, then as Nasty Nas, with Ill Will as his DJ - though the latter died in a shooting incident in 1992. Nasir's work brought him into the orbit of New York hip-hop luminaries, including the producer Large Professor, who would feature him in a guest spot on the well-regarded album by his own group Main Source, Live at the Barbeque. It garnered him the attention of Michael Berrin, known professionally as 3rd Bass frontman MC Serch. Serch signed on as Nasir's manager and brought him to his label, Columbia Records. In 1992, Serch produced the soundtrack for the indie film "Zebrahead" and included Nasir's track "Halftime," still credited as Nasty Nas. He scored another film credit with a song on the soundtrack to "Street Fighter" in 1994. By that point, Nasir had begun working on his own album in collaboration with a roster of producers including Large Professor and Pete Rock, and his debut record as Nas, Illmatic, bowed in 1994 on Columbia.
The record, weaving poetic tales of growing up in the projects, did less than set sales records, but it drew almost universal raves, heralding the arrival of a singular new talent. Nas set a new bar with his lyrical style, which signaled a unique evolution of the medium: rhythmic but naturalistic, weaving internal rhymes with typical rhyme-at-end-of-line rap structure. The album also featured instrumental performances by Nas' father Dara. Also in 1994, Nas and ex-fiancé Carmen Bryan had a daughter. The soured coupling would become a seed of a welling feud between Nas and fellow rising New York hip-hop artist Jay-Z, with whom Bryan also had a relationship. The next year, Nas and Serch ended their partnership and label executive Steve Stoute took over his management. Stoute and Columbia encouraged the artist towards more commercially-friendly output. The result was It was Written, which debuted in 1996 at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album saw Nas don more fictional POV characters with more posturing, gangsta-flavored narratives. The album was buoyed by two singles, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" and "Street Dreams," both promoted via accompanying music videos directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Hype Williams. The record went double-platinum, in spite of generally tepid reviews questioning Nas' seemingly pointless donning of gangsploitation subject matter. The track "Affirmative Action" featured an ad hoc hip-hop "supergroup" dubbed The Firm, which included Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown. In 1997, they would make a record as The Firm for Aftermath Entertainment, the label run by producer-artist Dr. Dre.
The following year, Nas went to work with Hype Williams on a feature project, co-writing and starring in the film "Belly." Co-billed with fellow rapper DMX, Nas took the role of a thief and drug runner attempting to excise himself from his violent life. The next year, he released I Am..., in which he attempted to reestablish the more personal narrative of his debut album, as well as venturing into political subject matter and social critique. The album again went immediately to the top of the Billboard 200, but stirred controversy with the second single, "Hate Me Now." It featured a guest spot by Sean Combs and the accompanying video closed with the shock image of Combs and Nas being crucified. Combs decided to have his scene excised, but an early cut of the video made it to the media. A public dustup ensued when Combs and his retinue broke into Stoute's office and roughed him up, leading to criminal charges. The matter was later settled out of court. In 2000, Nas, through his imprint Ill Will Records, put together an anthology album of artists from Queensbridge, Nas & Il Will Records Presents QB's Finest. It featured a track by Bravehearts, a group that included his brother Jabari Jones, a.k.a. Jungle. Nas/Ill Will went on to issue Bravehearts' first full-length CD, Bravehearted, in 2003.
In 2001, Nas cropped up as Steven Seagal's cop partner in the low-rent actioner "Ticker." He also took a greater hand in the indie film business by executive producing his own script and starring in the little-seen "Sacred is the Flesh," a tale of a starry-eyed couple corrupted by Hollywood excesses. Meanwhile, the feud between Nas and Jay-Z developed via interlocking spheres of influence in the New York rap community, and it went public in 2001 as the two stars began talking smack at each other in various public forums. It heated up after Nas issued a single, "Ether," in which he openly dissed his rival's morality and hinted that Jay-Z was exploiting the legacy of his late mentor, Biggie Smalls. Nas included more subtle swipes in tracks on his LP release Stillmatic. Jay-Z responded with a single in which he aired his relationship with Nas' ex, Bryan. The beef became a hot topic among hip-hop fandom. In 2002, Columbia released a compilation of previously unreleased Nas recordings, The Lost Tapes, and, late that year, his next studio effort, God's Son. The latter received a cross-media promotional boost the next year with the release of a DVD concert film, "Made You Look: God's Son Live," which featured guest appearances by Ludacris and Darryl McDaniels, ex member of Run-D.M.C.
Critics would herald both God's Son and his ensuing 2004 release, the double album Street's Disciple, as a return to his previous form, noting Nas' maturation as an artist and self-reflective storyteller. The latter would be his last record for Columbia. He married singer Kelis Rogers in 2005. Also that year, he and Jay-Z resolved their feud in spectacular fashion as Nas made a guest appearance onstage at a Jay-Z show. With Jay-Z then serving as president of Def Jam Records, the artists sealed the peace with Nas signing on with the label. Def Jam issued his next album, Hip Hop is Dead, in 2006. The title spurred controversy within the community, explained by Nas as a figurative expression of the lack of real power even among the most celebrated stars of the genre, who remained, he said, subordinate to four major record labels. He stirred an even hotter firestorm the next year with the announcement that his next album would be titled Nigger. African-American leaders, including prominent politicians in New York, Oprah Winfrey, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, condemned the decision. Industry luminaries such as Ice Cube, Alicia Keys, LL Cool J, Rev Run, Common and Method Man supported Nas' use of the term as political provocation. The controversy also stirred up a new feud with Fox News soapboxer Bill O'Reilly, who also lambasted Nas for his appearance at an anti-gun-violence benefit concert at Virginia Tech University in the wake of the infamous shooting spree there in 2007.
Though he would forego a title on the CD, it would indeed be Nas' most focused work of political dissent, carrying particularly resonant critiques of the Bush administration. Rolling Stone's review called it a "sprawling, furious, deeply ambivalent theme album about institutional racism, the failures of black leadership and the pathologies and promise of early-21st-century African-American life.the most intensely political record since the heyday of Public Enemy and Ice Cube." In the spring of 2009, Kelis filed for divorce in spite of being pregnant with Nas' son. In the fall of that year, Nas' non-musical life would again make headlines as the IRS initiated proceedings that would eventually seek $6.4 million from the artist in back taxes. In 2010, he again branched out artistically, collaborating with Bob Marley's sons, Damian and Stephen Marley, on a reggae/rap fusion project, Distant Relatives. Proceeds from the CD were to go to various agencies working to alleviate poverty and build schools in African nations. Nas' financial straits, the dissolution of his marriage, his eventful journey from Queensbridge and the existential conundrum of being so far from his origins would inform the ruminative tracks of his next album, 2012's Life is Good. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, his sixth record to reach that pinnacle.
By Matthew Grimm