Surviving The Times: The Evolution Of Nas

On the 20th anniversary of his revered Illmatic debut, we take a look back at the journey that would bring Nas into rap glory. From his raw, poetic start to his murky taper-off into commercialism, to the revival of his artistry through beef and heartbreak, here is The Evolution Of Nas.

The legendary DJ Premier has engineered his share of studio sessions, producing all-time greats like Biggie, Jay-Z and KRS-One. Asked for his most memorable recording moment, he turns to a young Nas and the opening song of arguably the tightest rap album of all time.

“I don’t know how to start this,” Nasty Nas mumbles over the early snares of 1994’s “NY State of Mind.” It wasn’t a humble adlib; it was raw admission. Premo is banging on the window of the vocal yelling, “We’re recording! Get ready!” Then young Nas—the voice heads had been clamoring to sprinkle more jewels since he roasted “Live at the BBQ” to carcinogens as a teenager—erupted: Rappers, I monkey-flip ’em…

“Everyone in the studio was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that,” Premier recalls, “was his first album. We was like, Yo, this guy is gonna be big.”

Since Nasir Jones was nine, he wanted to hold a microphone. “It was like something that possessed me. Something I was born to,” he told me when Illmatic celebrated its 10th birthday. Now it’s 20, the same age Nas was upon his debut backspun the rap world on its ear. “Some kids were into other shit. For me it was breakdancing, rapping, graffiti, DJing—even as I grew older, that was my BET, that was my cartoons, my everything else.”

The first stage of Nas the recording artist was all hunger and lyricism, poetry pinpointed at your head. He was heralded at the second coming of Rakim for his ability to impress with his wordplay and crisp cadence while simultaneously weaving stories, painting vivid cold worlds as his breath fogged the project window. With nine songs, he had won the respect of producers, emcees, legends and any kid with a Sport Walkman. He had also set a ridiculous standard for which all other efforts would be measured against.

The Second Coming’s second go-round brought his first No. 1 album and a switch of style. Scooping up the Trackmasters, Nas traded his army jacket for a pink sports coat in the “Street Dreams” video. Although the writing never faltered (“I Gave You Power”), with a little money and fame, Nas was recast as a Mafioso don. He cliqued up to headline The Firm (with Foxy Brown, AZ, Nature/Cormega) under Dr. Dre’s guidance, and his songs—previously perfect for hissy cassette decks—got glossier as he aimed at radio with R. Kelly and Lauryn Hill duets.

SEE ALSO: Quiz: How Well Do You Know Nas' 'Illmatic'?

With a taste of major Hype Williams video budget and radio play, Nas pushed all in. He took a stab at acting in 1998’s Belly and recruited pop-rap impresario Puff Daddy to lead off 1999’s I Am…, his third album, and ladies’ man Ginuwine for Nastradamus, his fourth. Original fans bristled hearing their lyrical deity bragging about his diamond bracelet and demanding for reparations next to a hips shaking in shiny pants. If the shark had been jumped yet, it would be with “Oochie Wally.” Queensbridge no longer seemed grimy and introspective but rather obsessed with chasing skirts and Billboard status. The streets’ great hope had begun writing within the margins.

When Jay-Z ripped on Nas’s spotty artistic path on 2001’s “Takeover,” he did the world a favour and brought the nasty back. Rediscovering his fight and his voice, battle-mode Nas shot back at Jay-Z with the scathing “Ether,” a razorblade stashed on Stillmatic—his fifth LP winking back to his first. Creatively, the new century brought us a more textured Nas. He began to show his versatility a writer, and the pen was always his sharpest sword.

He could be combative, inspirational (“I Can,” for his daughter), melancholy (“Dance,” for his mother), mind-bending (“Rewind” is a screenplay in reverse), documentarian (“U.B.R.”), earnest (“One Mic”), autobiographical (“Poppa Was a Playa”), or whimsically old-school (“Virgo). He could also throw down the hammer of Thor and add to the canon of Untouchable Rap Songs (“Made You Look”).
“Before God’s Son, the music was getting real watered down again,” Nas said in 2004. “There was something lacking. Nobody was really taking a risk.”

SEE ALSO: 10 Cinematic Connections On Nas' 'Illmatic'

The risks kept coming as Nas began to hook each new opus on a controversial peg, perhaps to stir sales and/or conversation. Hip Hop Is Dead positioned Nas as the elder statesman, a matured cultural gatekeeper taking stock of and doing his damndest to preserve the thing he loved, the thing that made us look. He made peace with Jay-Z on “Black Republican” and dug up a rap encyclopedia full of faded stars for three separate posse-cut remixes of “Where Are They Now?” Untitled was supposed to be titled Nigger, but the suits at the record company weren’t going for it. Still, Nas posed with whip scars on his bare back for the cover art and railed against Fox News, poverty, fried chicken, and America’s ugly history of two-facedness. Ginuwine’s dance moves were nowhere to be found.

Two decades later, Nas has come full circle, embracing the no-famous-guest-appearances debut that he had, by turns, tried to match or avoid. Entering his classic-rock phase, he began touring on the strength of a promise to perform Illmatic in its entirety. In divorce, he seemed to salvage an artistic peace, writing his best full-length in years, with Life Is Good—a smart grown-man rap record that balances wisdom (“Daughters”) with heartbreak (“Bye Baby”) while winking at those stuck-in-the-’90s heads who still believe the wack emcee needs a good monkey-flipping over a funky rhythm.

“Sometimes I listen to Illmatic and it sounds old school,” Nas said in 2004. “Sometimes I listen to it and it sounds untouchable.”

Perspectives change, but 20 years later the listening is constant. -- Luke Fox

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Music Sermon: The Groundbreaking Sprite and St. Ides Hip-Hop Campaigns

Today, rap music is used to sell everything from electronics to tax filing services to nut butter grinding machines at Whole Foods. We understand that hip-hop culture is essentially the root of everything cool and hip in culture, period, and it’s been commodified and appropriated within an inch of its life. But in the early ‘90s, the genre was far from Madison Avenue-friendly. Aside from the groundbreaking deal between Adidas and RUN DMC, brands didn’t yet see full value and impact of hip-hop…except in the food and beverage industry.

Beverage companies centering campaigns for the urban demo around black music was nothing new; Coca-Cola had ads featuring artists such as New Edition and Anita Baker singing their hearts out for the cola in the ‘80s, and Schlitz Malt Liquor had a legendary – and hilarious - run of spots featuring The Commodores, The Four Tops, Teddy Pendergrass and more through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, in the early ‘90s two brands put their entire business on hip-hop’s back, by not only building their brands but spring-boarding the recognition of the music and artists as a marketing and advertising tool: Sprite soda and St. Ides malt liquor.

In the ‘80s, Sprite was languishing behind competitor 7Up when parent company Coca-Cola decided to focus on the youth market, and the quickly growing hip-hop culture was part of the strategy. African-American ad agency Burrell Communications tagged hip-hop acts for a series of spots that began a long-standing marriage between the brand and the culture, starting with Kurtis Blow in 1986. It was one of the first national TV ads to feature a rapper.

KURTIS BLOW - 1986

In 1990, the brand kicked off the “I Like the Sprite in You” campaign, using rap acts that matched the soft drink’s bubbly energy, starting with Heavy D & the Boyz before partnering with Kid ’n Play the following year. The ads featured the artists clad in lemon-lime fare, rhymin’ about lymon.

HEAVY D - 1990 KID’N PLAY – 1991

With Kris Kross, they turned it up a notch and had us crunk inside the Sprite can. Edgy. Also, this was catchy as hell.

KRIS KROSS - 1993

Then in 1994, a young brand manager from Clark Atlanta University named Darryl Cobbin had an idea for a new direction: Gen X was about authenticity and independence of thought, not following the hype. Sprite ditched the pop-friendly crossover acts and identified more “authentic” rap artists – lyricists with street and cultural cred – to rep the brand. “Lymon” was also out of the window, as they moved away from marketing taste and towards marketing attitude. (Cobbin later spearheaded the iconic, yet grammatically questionable, Boost Mobile “Where You At?” campaign.)

Gone were the bright yellow and green sets, because while the new slogan said, “Image is nothing,” it was all about image. Bright and shiny was traded for dark and gritty. Now we were in the studio; a fly on the wall for freestyle sessions. In the first spot of the series with Grand Puba and Large Professor, Puba closes with “First thing’s first, obey your thirst.” It’s legend even within Coca-Cola that Puba ad-libbed the phrase that then became the brand’s tagline that remains to this day.

GRAND PUBA & LARGE PROFESSOR - 1994 PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH – 1994 A TRIBE CALLED QUEST – 1994

The “Obey Your Thirst” spots also took us the street corner, the club, and inside the ring when Sprite resurrected the legendary KRS One vs. MC Shan battle.

KRS ONE & MC SHAN - 1996 NAS & AZ – 1997 THE LOST BOYS – 1997

By the late ‘90s Sprite had spent roughly $70M on the “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, tripled sales, and commanded a majority market share of the citrus category (which also included 7Up, Sierra Mist, and Mountain Dew).

Sprite had also succeeded in becoming an official and established part of the culture. They were family. The brand further expanded into urban youth culture through a partnership with the NBA, while continuing to evolve the creative of the rap campaigns.

KOBE BRYANT, TIM DUNCAN & MISSY ELLIOTT – 1998

Near the end of the decade, Sprite explored the overlap between hip-hop culture, comics and martial arts with a series of posse spots based on Voltron (representing all hip-hop regions) and the 5 Deadly Venoms (with all female emcees).

VOLTRON SERIES - 1998 5 DEADLY VENOMS SERIES – 1999

Over the years, Sprite has continued to be one of the most consistent brands in hip-hop. We’ve grown accustomed to spotting the logo everywhere from music festivals and shows to the background of BET’s hip-hop cyphers. They revitalized the “Obey Your Thirst” campaign with Drake in 2010 and paid homage to the greatest lyricists in rap with the “Obey Your Verse” campaign featuring iconic rappers and cans with classic lyrics in 2015.

SPRITE "Obey Your Verse - Cooler" (starring Rakim) from SHOUT IT OUT LOUD MUSIC on Vimeo.

St. Ides’ run with hip-hop doesn’t have the same happy ending as Sprite’s. The brand’s usage of rap petered out in the mid-90s after wide backlash and a series of lawsuits.

For St. Ides, hip-hop was the brand campaign. It’s how they built their business. The brand was introduced in 1987 and their rap campaigns launched in 1988. The malt liquor 40 oz., with significantly higher alcohol content than beer at around a $2 price point, was already a staple in lower-income neighborhoods and hip-hop culture. The “Crooked I” capitalized on that.

Parent company McKenzie River secured Ice Cube as their anchor spokesperson and tapped West Coast producer DJ Pooh to spearhead advertising creative. Pooh lined up a veritable who’s who of additional West Coast rappers over the years, including Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, Warren G, Snoop and Tupac; plus the thorough-est from the East, including Eric B and Rakim, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie and EPMD.

EPMD & ICE CUBE - 1991 GETO BOYS & ICE CUBE – 1992 ERIC B & RAKIM - 1992

Unlike Sprite’s campaigns which were first jingles and still felt like commercials, even when elevated to trading hot bars for Obey Your Thirst. St. Ides spots, however, looked and felt like straight up music videos with album-worthy production and flow.

ICE CUBE – 1993 MC EIHT – 1994 NOTORIOUS B.I.G. – 1995

Complex even named Wu-Tang’s St. Ides spot “Shaolin Brew” as one of the collective’s 100 best songs! (But at least it’s ranked near the bottom; #97.)

WU-TANG CLAN - 1995

In fact, in 1994, the brand did turn the hottest of the joints into an album, with the St. Ides promotional mixtape dropping at your neighborhood liquor store. It featured full-length songs about getting twisted off the malt liquor from Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan, Scarface, MC Eiht, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Nate Dogg.

The Snoop and Nate track is low key a jam, still. Homegirl in the background starting at the 10-second mark is a whole mood.

This blatant marketing of malt liquor directly to black and brown youth wasn’t going to go unchecked indefinitely. It was all irresponsible, even while being genius for the demo. In 1991, the Wall Street Journal listed the St. Ides ad campaign among one of the worst of the year, which probably didn’t matter at the time since WSJ readers weren’t St. Ides’ base.

In 1991, Public Enemy released Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Back. The album featured “100 Bottle Bags,” a direct criticism against malt liquor companies marketing specifically to urban communities “…but they don’t sell that sh*t in the white neighborhoods.” Shortly after the release, St. Ides found itself in Chuck D’s crosshairs, and he fired the first in a series of big shots against the brand, marking the beginning of the end of their love affair with hip-hop. An 80-second radio spot featuring Cube used a sample of Chuck’s voice without his permission. The ad had already aired over 500 times on rap radio shows when Chuck sued St. Ides parent company McKenzie River for five million dollars (they settled out of court).

Then, St. Ides and McKenzie River fell under legal scrutiny from the New York State Attorney General in 1992 for using verbiage like Cube’s lyric “Get your girl in the mood quicker, make your jimmy thicker…St. Ides.” to suggest the malt liquor increased sexual prowess. Can you imagine the think pieces if that spot ran today?

They were later in hot water with the New York AG’s office again, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (the ATF) for advertising perceived to the be targeted towards minors, with complaints that it glamorized gang affiliation and promoted sex. After having production completely shut down for a short while and getting hit with heavy fines, St. Ides tried to clean up its act, adding “drink responsibly” messaging into the spots.

By ’96 the run was over. Hip-hop was growing up, getting money and moving towards more sophisticated alcoholic beverage choices. Alizé and Hennessy, anyone?

The relationship between hip-hop and alcohol never ended, of course, but has continued to evolve to match the evolution of the lifestyle. We don’t go to the corner store no more, homie (save a brief return in the early aughts of Four Loko). We’re toasting to the good life with premium brands, some of which are now owned by the artists.

We can look back now with the wizened, woke eyes of maturity and possibly scrutinize our artists selling out at the expense of the community, but for the young and burgeoning hip-hop culture, both the St. Ides campaigns and the Sprite campaigns opened the door for the power and commodification of hip-hop and consumer brands. For better or for worse.

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J.Cole, Teyana Taylor And Other Snubs Of The 2019 Grammy Nominations

It's that time of year again when inner circles and strangers on the Internet debate who's up for a gramophone.

On Friday (Dec. 7), the nominees for 2019's Grammy Awards (Feb. 10) were announced to a span of hot takes, early but informed predictions, and a wall of confusion as to why certain artists were overlooked. While some entertainers excitedly received the good news (Cardi B discovered her nods while leaving a courthouse), others were left scratching their heads.

Here's a look at why those who were snubbed by the Recording Academy deserved to be nominated.

READ MORE: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, And Cardi B Lead 2019 Grammys Nominations

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Anderson .Paak, Tierra Whack And More Praise Female Artists At 2018 Billboard Women In Music

Some of music's biggest stars attended Billboard's annual Women in Music event on Thursday night (Dec. 6).

Pop star Ariana Grande was awarded with the night's highest honor, "Woman Of The Year," while SZA, Janelle Monae, Cyndi Lauper, Hayley Kiyoko, and Kacey Musgraves were awarded with subsequent prestigious honors.

VIBE got a chance to speak to some of the musicians in attendance on the carpet, including hip-hoppers Anderson .Paak and Tierra Whack, the Janelle Monae-cosigned St. Beauty, and Massah David, the co-founder of the creative agency, MVD Inc..

When prompted about some of their favorite bodies of work by female artists this year, a resounding amount of musicians stated Teyana Taylor's K.T.S.E and Tierra Whack's Whack World as some of their personal picks.

The 23-year-old MC and first-time Grammy nominee confirmed with VIBE she's working on "something really special" with fellow Philadelphian and friend Meek Mill. She also stated that while the accolades for her work have been exciting, she's more excited for society to stop gendering dope artists, especially in the hip-hop game.

"I hope that [labeling through gender] ends soon," she said. "I know, technically, rap is a male-dominated industry, but, like, I’m better than all of ‘em! [laughs] It is what it is! I don’t even count gender or color, it’s just whoever’s got it."

What are some members of the music industry looking forward to in 2019? More women in high-profile positions and more chances for women in general.

"Hopefully just having more opportunities for women in different spaces in music, whether it’s radio, behind-the-scenes, engineering, actually making the music," said David. "I’m just hoping we get to see women in more executive roles."

Watch our recap video above.

READ MORE: Janelle Monae Discusses Creative Freedom, Her Relationship With Diddy In New 'Billboard' Interview

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