September 14, 1973
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Mary J. Blige
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Beginning with the landmark 1994 debut Illmatic, Nas (born Nasir Jones) became a towering figure in East Coast rap. Born in Brooklyn, Nas is the son of jazz cornetist/guitarist Olu Dara. Nas moved to Queens after his parents divorced and he dropped out of grade school. He began recording as a teenager, first stirring up notice as a guest rapper on the Main Source album track "Live at the Barbeque" (which was never a single) and then teamed up with MC Serch of 3rd Bass, who managed Nas, used him on his own tracks and ultimately got him signed (However, Def Jam's Russell Simmons was among the label execs who turned down the demo that became Illmatic). The album was purely New York in its subject matter, detailing the desperation of life in the projects and the rapper's struggles to escape them; there are also moments of upbeat escape. His verbal acuity earned comparisons to everyone from Rakim to Bob Dylan, and the album's multi-producer approach, with a different sound on every track, was emulated by many rappers afterward. Illmatic almost single-handedly shifted the nexus of rap from the West Coast back to the East, with the rise of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z still to come. While Nas' followup work never had quite as much cultural impact, his commercial and critical fortunes have seldom flagged in the following decades. There were grumbles that his second album It Was Written slanted toward pop (which it partly did, though much of the album had an underworld/drug trade theme), yet it outsold Illmatic and hit Number One. He next planned to make a double CD that would tell his life story; however the initial sessions were leaked online and he cut I Am down to a single disc. Notably it included the Tupac/B.I.G. tribute "We Will Survive" which included a swipe at Jay-Z; the fallout from this would stretch for years to come. Jay-Z responded with the track "Takeover" (which claimed Nas "Had a spark when you started but now you're just garbage") and from there the battle was on. Nas teased his next album Stillmatic-- less a sequel to his debut that a reclaiming of his territory-with the single "Ether," whose first line was "Fuck Jay-Z!" It would be another four years before they buried the hatchet, appearing together on Nas' album Hip-Hop is Dead-- which also buried the East/West Coast hatchet by including Dr. Dre and the Game. Meanwhile Nas made some smart business investments, including Dropbox and Lyft along with opening his own sneaker store and starting a clothing line, HSTRY. Nas' twelfth album, 2018's Nasir, was a collaboration with Kanye West who co-wrote and co-produced. It continued his three-decade hit streak by entering the Billboard chart at Number Five, while prompting the usual head-scratching about whether Nas could ever top his debut.
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