Born Nasir Jones on September 14, 1973, in Queens, NY; son of Fannie Ann Jones and Olu Dara (a jazz trumpeter). Addresses: Record company--Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022, phone: (212) 833-8000, website: http://www.sonymusic.com. Website--Nas Official Website: http://www.iamnas.com.
By the time he was barely out of his twenties, Nas had released five successful albums, launched his own record label, a fashion company, and appeared in several films. With his music, Nas became known for, according to Len Righi of the Morning Call, his "ability to look outside the immediate circumstances of his life" and address larger issues. In the early 2000s, Nas accomplished something that had eluded many other hip-hop figures---he continued to develop as an artist and found ongoing popularity.
Nas was born Nasir Jones on September 14, 1973, in Queens, New York. His father, Olu Dara, a jazz and blues trumpeter, chose the name Nasir for his son because of its Arabic meaning: "helper" or "protector." Nas was raised by his mother, Fannie Ann Jones.
Growing up in New York City's tough Queensbridge housing projects, "it sometimes seemed to [Nas] his whole world was ill and being eaten away," wrote Christopher John Farley in Time. "Drugs were devouring minds, crime was destroying families, poverty was gnawing at souls." In May of 1992, both Nas's brother, Jungle, and his best friend were shot on the same night. Although his brother lived, Nas's friend did not survive his injuries. "That was a wake-up call for me," Nas told Time.
Released Debut Album
Two years after his wake-up call, Nas released his debut album, Illmatic. Nas worked with a number of top hip-hop producers, and his hard work paid off. Entertainment Weekly said of the album: "his witty lyrics and gruffly gratifying beats draw listeners into [his neighborhood's] lifestyle with poetic efficiency." Farley, writing in Time, noted that the record "captures the ailing community he [Nas] was raised in--the random gunplay, the whir of police helicopters, the homeboys hanging out on the corner sipping bottles of Hennessey."
Setting himself apart from other gangsta rappers, Nas did not typically glorify violence in his music, but, rather, his songs evoke sadness and outrage. Farley noted in Time that Nas performs on the album with "submerged emotion" and describes urban tragedy dispassionately, much "like an anchorman relaying the day's grim news." The New York Times declared that, on the album, Nas "imbues his chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness....[He] reports violence without celebrating it, dwelling on the way life triumphs over grim circumstances rather than the other way around."
Nas's sophomore album, It Was Written, was released in 1996, selling more than a million copies. Again, Nas worked with several hip-hop producers, including top-selling Dr. Dre. With this album, however, Nas faced criticism that the songs were amoral, contained rough language, and included episodes of violence. Critics were also frustrated by the album's contradictions. The hit single "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)," for example, depicts paradise as a "better livin' type of place to raise our kids in." However, this world is also one in which cocaine comes uncut, allowing higher profits on the drug. In a Rolling Stone review, Mark Coleman commented that Nas "possesses a phenomenal way with words and some savvy musical sense." Coleman continued, "It's a pity he doesn't put his verbal dexterity and powers of observation to better use....When Nas finally aligns his mind with his mouth, he'll truly be dangerous."
Music critic Toure, writing in the New York Times, noted a strong musical link between Nas and his father, Olu Dara. Though the two musicians came from very different backgrounds and subscribed to different musical schools, Toure wrote, "Nas's music is characterized by a laid-back cool, with a penchant for medium-pace tempos and relatively sparse tracks, all of which are hallmarks of his father's music." Nas's father, who had a trumpet solo on his son's first album, told Toure, "His aggressive is cool. Not like 'I'm angry! I'm mad!' It's cool. And that's the way my music is." Vernon Reid, a guitarist who has played with Dara, also noted similarities between father and son, saying in the New York Times: "Both have a finely tuned sense of irony, which I think is evident in Nas's lyrics and Olu's playing." Reid continued, "There's a kind of cockeyed way of looking at the world. A raised eyebrow. Sly. They're seeing what's going on underneath the surface."
Appeared in First Film
In 1998 Nas made his feature film debut, appearing in Belly. Co-starring with fellow rapper DMX, the two hip-hop stars played best friends. Although they both come from the same violent neighborhood, these two friends want very different things out of life. Tommy, played by DMX, is willing to do whatever it takes to attain money, power, and women. Nas's character, Sincere, wishes only to provide for his girlfriend and their child. To do so, he has partnered with Tommy in a world of crime, violence, and drugs. Sincere, however, has begun to reconsider his ways. In the end, according to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reviewer Paula Nechak, both characters arrive at the same conclusion: "Life is what you make it and knowledge and self-respect are everything."
Critics, although praising the stylistic ability of the film's director, Hype Williams, skewered the film for its lack of originality. The Seattle Times criticized the acting skills of both rap stars, saying that Nas and DMX "couldn't mutter their way out of an unzipped starter jacket." Nechak, however, concluded in the Seattle Post- Intelligencer: "There is a real rite of passage these two young men go through in order to find themselves, and for once the payoff isn't death."
I Am, Nas's third album, was released in 1999. Here Nas collaborated with such stars as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Lauryn Hill, and Aaliyah. With numerous radio-friendly tracks on the album, a number of music critics accused the rapper of selling out. The Record noted that I Am seemed "tailored for mass consumption," and the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that several tracks "are too generic for Nas' delivery, leaving his vocals sounding ungrounded." Nas's talent had not waned however. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Nas continues to drop jaws and tingle ear canals with his complex and challenging wordplay." Rather, some critics felt that Nas, in producing so mainstream an album, had done a disservice to his talent. The Record concluded that "the commercial advance requires an artistic step backward."
Later that year, Nas released his fourth album, Nastradamus. Again, critics lamented the too-polished style of the album. New York Times critic Soren Baker observed, "It's as if in graduating from the ghetto, he's misplaced the gritty edge that made him a hero."
Feuded With Jay-Z
Perhaps Nas regained some of his edge when he began a feud of words with rapper Jay-Z. Jay-Z's album, The Blueprint, featured the track "Takeover." Here Jay-Z referred to Nas as "garbage," saying, "That's why your--l-a-a-a-me!--career's come to an end." Nas retaliated with an underground parody of the Jay-Z hit "Izzo." The feud was further fueled by several tracks on Nas's 2001 album, Stillmatic. Here Nas accused Jay-Z of usurping rhymes from the late Notorious B.I.G., criticized Jay-Z's preference for Hawaiian shirts, and even attempted a bit of armchair psychoanalysis. Hip-hop fans in both the United States and Europe were fascinated by the feud, choosing sides and, according to the New York Times, "debating each rapper's use of puns and metaphors." The feud came to an end in early 2002. Jay-Z, after receiving a call from his mother asking him to stop, telephoned a New York City radio station and publicly apologized for "Super Ugly," his response to Nas's Stillmatic tracks.
Nas formed his own record label, Nas and Ill Will Records. He also launched a clothing line--Esco. In 2001 he co-starred with Steven Segal in the action film, Ticker. Although he has branched out into business and film, Nas remained devoted to music. "Music is in my blood," he told the New York Times. "I could have chosen to do a lot of other things. I could have been a scientist, a lawyer. But this is where I'm comfortable at, right here."
Unissued Tracks Released
Nas's comeback as a street-oriented hip-hop artist was slowed somewhat by the appearance of The Lost Tapes, a collection of previously unreleased material that Entertainment Weekly described as "more introspection and insight than insult." Nas was not pleased. Asked about a rumor that he had called himself a "slave" of his label Columbia, the rapper answered, "I may not be a slave because I get paid for what I do, but the system still pimps artists."
The year 2002 saw Nas coping with personal pain as cancer claimed the rapper's mother. Personal stress perhaps lay behind his widely publicized no-show at the Hot 97 Summer Jam in New York. Nas nevertheless continued his activities in the studio with guest appearances on Brandy's "What About Us?" and J-Lo's "I'm Gonna Be All Right," among other tracks. Nas memorialized his mother on the "Dance" track of his God's Son album, released in December of 2002; the song also featured an instrumental contribution by his father, Olu Dara.
Suggestions of a mellower Nas, as evidenced on the uplifting track "I Can," was contradicted by such hardcore hip-hop tracks as "Made You Look," though both tracks became hits. Rapper Eminem co-wrote and produced "The Cross," which took aim at R&B's rap pretenders. Headlines linked Nas romantically that year with Harlem rapper Kelis, and a marriage was planned. An assault arrest in December of 2003 suggested Nas's continuing bent toward controversy, but a double-disc 10th-anniversary release of Illmatic the following year confirmed his status as one of the genre's artists of lasting significance.
by Jennifer M. York and James M. Manheim
Released debut album Illmatic, 1994; released It Was Written, 1996; made film debut in Belly, 1998; released I Am, 1999; released Nastradamus, 1999; released Stillmatic, 2001; appeared in films Ticker, and Sacred Is the Flesh, 2001; released The Lost Tapes, 2002; released God's Son, 2002.
Youth Summit Award, Hip-Hop Youth Summit, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Illmatic Columbia, 1994.
- It Was Written Columbia, 1996.
- I Am Columbia, 1999.
- Nastradamus Columbia, 1999.
- Stillmatic Ill Will, 2001.
- God's Son Columbia, 2002.
- Illmatic: 10th Anniversary Platinum Edition Sony, 2004.
- Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 33, Gale Group, 2002.
- Who's Who Among African Americans, 14th ed. Gale Group, 2000.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 22, 1994, p. 58; July 26, 1996, p. 56; November 22, 2002, p. L2T6.
- Florida Times Union, January 18, 2002, p. WE11.
- The Independent Sunday (London, England), January 6, 2002, p. 9.
- Jet, August 18, 2003, p. 41.
- Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1999, p. C8; December 23, 2001, p. F71.
- Morning Call (Allentown, PA), January 12, 2002, p. A40.
- New York Times, Oct. 6, 1996, sec. 2; January 6, 2002, p. L1; February 25, 2002, p. Upfront-18.
- People, January 20, 2003, p. 39.
- The Record (Bergen County, NJ) April 23, 1999, p. 8.
- Rolling Stone, September 16, 1996, pp. 83-84; December 26, 1996, pp. 194-95.
- San Francisco Chronicle, April 18, 1999, p. 42.
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 4, 1998, p. C3.
- Seattle Times, November 4, 1998, p. F3.
- Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 23, 2002, p. 58; December 19, 2003, p. 106.
- Time, June 20, 1994, p. 62; July 29, 1996, p. 79.
- "Nas," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 24, 2002).
- Nas Official Website, http://www.iamnas.com (April 23, 2004).