In an era where rap artists who once ruled with an iron mic-clutching fist are catching a second wind, the timing has proved sufficient for Hip-Hop’s most brilliant wordsmiths to concentrate their powers. The well of inspiration has runneth over for many stalwarts who plied their trade when cassettes were more commodity than relic. Weathering the storms of industry and life while dancing along with the hands of time, these chosen few have made it their business to carry on tradition in spite of our ever-changing cultural tides.
One veteran who has upheld that mission with valor is Cormega, who has spent over a quarter-century specializing in his signature brand of poignant reality rap. Facing the harsh realities has long been an exercise in which the Brooklyn-born Queens rep has excelled, as he’s proved through while enduring various setbacks that nearly derailed his career before it started. Famously earning a legendary nod from Nas on the Illmatic album track “One Love,” Cormega’s mid-90s entrance in the game was an epic one. Appearances on Nas’ It Was Written posse cut “Affirmative Action” and an inclusion into the supergroup The Firm alongside Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nas put Mega in the crosshairs of stardom and mainstream success. However, an unceremonious exit from The Firm, as well as Def Jam Records shelving his intended debut album The Testament placed Cormega on the brink of obscurity.
Despite his back to the wall and the chip on his shoulder, the lyricist kept his feet – and pen on solid ground. Capitalizing on his street buzz, Cormega took matters into his own hands, unleashing his first studio album The Realness in 2001. Released through his own Legal Hustle imprint and LandSpeed Records, The Realness saw the rapper channeling his frustrations into a body of work hailed as one of the best independent efforts of that year. With guest appearances by Mobb Deep and Tragedy Khadafi, as well as production by Havoc, The Alchemist, Ayatollah, J-Love, Sha Money XL, Jae Supreme and more, The Realness removed all doubt of Cormega’s standing as a lyrical elite and placed him on the trajectory he continues to climb upward today.
In 2022, Cormega remains a towering force in the game that refuses to rest on past wins, yet, the rapper decided to bring his most loyal and longtime supporters back to the essence with The Realness II, the sequel to his landmark debut. Released two decades after the original, The Realness II contains the occasional reference to the first installment, but is a product born not out of its author’s longing for yesteryear, but the emcee, parent and human he’s evolved into during the interim. Featuring a cast that includes The Realness alums Havoc, The Alchemist, Sha Money XL, and Big Ty, as well as contributions from Nas, Lloyd Banks, Large Professor, Harry Fraud, STREETRUNNER, and more, The Realness II looks to add to his collection of streetwise, yet poetic and heartfelt parables and testimonials.
VIBE spoke with Cormega about the creation of The Realness II, mending his friendship with Nas, the possibilities of The Firm reuniting and more.
You’re gearing up to release The Realness II, the sequel to your classic 2001 album. What spurred you to revisit this particular piece of work at this time and build on its legacy?
The challenge of making a sequel to it. Because The Realness was such a well-received album, I knew it was gonna be a fun challenge.
How long has this project been in the works? And when did you begin the recording process?
I’ve been working on this album for a few years. I would say the pandemic slowed a lot of it down, because at that point, I didn’t even want to go to studio. So I just stayed home and did a lot of writing, but it took two years because of the cast that was assembled to create this album. I have like 11 producers and I have three artists. And then I have my guy who mixes my album, who is in demand also. So basically, it was about people’s schedule and being patient and everything fell into place.
Right. The front covers of the original The Realness and The Realness II are eerily similar. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
Yes, definitely. That’s the same hallway [from The Realness]. I stood in that hallway thousands of times when I was younger. And it was just a contemplative place for me, even before rap. When I did that picture for The Realness cover, I was a certain person, and when I did this picture, it was just a nostalgic moment and also a moment of growth and coming to fruition.
What are some of the thoughts that went through your mind when you went to shoot this cover? And how did they differ from when you did the last cover?
When I did the first cover, I’m looking out that window reminiscing on my youthful moments and not knowing what to expect, you know. Not knowing that The Realness would be well-received. And then I am here now, in this picture like, ‘Wow, that was a classic album.’ And I view it out of a different lens as a man, you know. Like a lot people that were there on that album aren’t alive. So much growth with me in my personal life. I have two children, I didn’t have no children when The Realness came out. On the new The Realness, I barely use profanity on my album. I don’t think I said the word b*tch once. So me as a man, I see through it differently. So when I’m looking out that window this time, even the body posture is slightly different. It’s not a chip on my shoulder, it’s not me against the world, it’s me having a better understanding [of life].
You connected with multiple producers who contributed to The Realness. What was it like linking with those guys and attempting to recreate that magic?
Well, it was four producers that was on the original The Realness. It was Havoc, Alchemist, Sha Money XL and my man Big Ty. Out the gate, I wanted to work with Alchemist again ’cause it’s been a while and that’s something that the fans have been wanting for a while. And I always listen to what they say, so getting him on there was a priority. Havoc, it was almost automatic. Havoc’s almost on all of my projects and I always have his back as well. The chemistry that we have is important and I felt needs to be on this album. And then you got Big Ty. We did a song called “The Saga” that’s on The Realness, and on the sequel, he did “The Saga Resumes.” I had to get him because nobody could capture that sound that he does, he created that. He didn’t sample that, he didn’t loop that and flip that, so I wanted to get that sound from him. And Sha Money XL, that’s my man. We’ve got dumb chemistry, I love working with him. And he gave me one of my biggest record on the last The Realness album, so I said I gotta have him on there.
I did an album with Large Professor years ago. I did a EP with StreetRunner and his co-producer Tarik Azzouz, so my chemistry with them is amazing. And I’ve been working with Harry Fraud a lot behind the scenes and we have a good chemistry. So I wanted to pull in all the people I have great chemistry with also, as opposed to just trying to recruit everybody that was on the first The Realness. And there were producers from the first The Realness that sent me beats, but they didn’t make the cut. Maybe they’ll make the next one.
You and Havoc will be dropping the music video for The Realness II collaboration “Paradise.” What was the vibe like filming that visual?
That was one of the funnest videos I’ve ever done. That was a cheat code. Our day started off early in the morning, we end up at a private airport. The plane comes to pick us up, we fly to Miami. Two Suburbans come and pick us up and take us to my man’s mansion. We eat, after we eat, my man gives me the key to an SUV. And then from the SUV, we drive to a yacht, a big yacht. And then we stayed on this yacht for like three days. That’s where we stayed, we didn’t stay in the hotel. So basically, I said, ‘Yo, we’re on a yacht, we might as well film some of this.’ [He said], ‘All right, bet.’ [I said] ‘Yo, we’re at the mansion, we might as well film some of this.’ [He said] ‘All right, bet [laughs]. It was just us inhaling, exhaling and enjoying life and we just filmed it.
You mentioned earlier that it’s people that was on the first installment of The Realness that are no longer here and one of those people is Prodigy, who recently dropped his The Hegelian Dialectic 2: The Book of Heroine album. What was it like not having Prodigy be involved in this project since y’all been like brothers for years and him being on the first The Realness?
It was a void, it was definitely a void. Some voids are unfillable, you just have to move on and adapt. You can’t fill a black hole. You just go around that space, but you can’t fill a black hole, so Prodigy’s presence is highly and heavily missed and his space is unfillable.
So not having him here was definitely something that will resonate with me. I’m giving him more thought now because you’re the first person that really brought that question to me because as I was making the album, I just was in survival mode. Like, ‘Let me just finish the album.’ I wasn’t even thinking about that because Prodigy wasn’t here. And I have an unreleased verse or two from Prodigy, but I didn’t want to use it because you have to go through the family, the estate and all of that and I didn’t feel like going through that. And plus, I think that’s kind of tacky at times, I’ve got too much respect for his family for me to just put his verse on my album and put it out. So one day, inevitably, Inshallah, we’ll be on a song again. But his presence is supremely missed.
Definitely, man. Rest in Peace. And then, the first thing you dropped from The Realness II is “Essential.” Can you talk about the concept and why you chose to lead the album with that song?
I chose to lead the album with that song because what I do is, I like to play music for people and I see people’s responses. I might not even ask you your response, I’m gonna watch your response. I might be silent, you might not know what I’m thinking, but I always watch people because body language is the most honest language. So when I played that song for people, I played in London, I’ve played in Brooklyn, I’ve played in Queens. Everywhere I play it, the reaction has been very strong, so that was definitely one of the songs that I had in mind. But also another reason why I did it…because I want to separate myself from a lot of these rappers. I see a lot of rappers come out, they declare themselves like ‘Album of the Year’ before their album even comes out. Like real cocky and real confident. And I’m looking at the game of rap and I’m like, ‘A lot of these dudes don’t even really got lyrics. Bars and lyrics is two different things. Having flow and lyrics is two different things.
I’m a rare kind of artist, like Nas is a lyricist or Prodigy or Havoc. We’re from that cloth and there’s not many of us, so I wanted to do a song like “Essential.” It was very important because it was me by myself. That’s another important thing to me because a lot of these people be living off of other people’s waves or be living off of other people’s hype. In other words, you might not be that hot, but you go do a bunch of features and all of a sudden, you’re hot now. So is it really you that got yourself hot or was it the features? So if I do a song like “Essential” and it’s me by myself and that’s song makes noise, there’s no excuses. So I wanted to push myself in every possible way with this album. That single being just me was definitely intentional because I wanted to show these rappers something. With this album of trying to show and prove and it’s like a lot of people don’t understand that a lot of people aren’t incredible as they think they are, they just have incredible features or they’re part of a credible movement. But if you give certain of the artist those same opportunities, they’ll thrive. So me putting out “Essential” first was a statement.
Can you speak on the continuity from the first The Realness to now, as far as the songs, sequels and topics that you built upon?
Well, the first album was definitely the blueprint for this one. With the first album, I seen how it was structured. I listened to the cohesiveness and I wanted to find that balance, but at the same time I couldn’t be as raw as I was on certain songs because I’m not that person anymore. So, yeah, the structure of The Realness 2, I wanted this album to be more cinematic. I wanted it to be cinematic to the ear, like I didn’t want it to just feel standard, basic or predictable. So I used The Realness as my blueprint, but I think I might have even matched it or exceeded it production wise on this album and that’s something I’m proud of.
One song on The Realness II tracklist that stands out is “Glorious” featuring Nas. How did that track come about?
It didn’t come about, it was long overdue. Sometimes when something is long overdue, you’ve gotta do it. He knew it was long overdue. It was something that I wanted to do, it was something that he wanted to do and we just made it happen. And the beautiful thing about that song is it lived up to the hype. You know, a lot of times, you see two names and the song comes out, it like, ‘Uh, [it’s] okay. It’s not what I thought it would be or it’s not as good as I expected. This is not the case with this song. And I know that from my listening session or from me playing it for people. People lose their mind when they hear that song. And then, the production was gritty, which is something that people wanted from Nas and from me. They see that we’ve grown and we’ve grew as artists and we’re in different places, but at the same time, there’s a sound that we can tap into. That people want us to tap into and I think we did that on this.
Right. The issues that the two of you have had in the past are well documented. So what inspired the two of you to bury the hatchet?
We’ve got love for each other. As a mature person, you have to really analyze and just look at it from a scale: You’ve got the pros and you got the cons. And a lot of times, you might even experience this in your life. Did you ever had a difference with somebody? And then that small difference ends up prolonging into something that’s uncomfortable for a very long time? And then, one day, you try to sit back and you try to remember what the root of it is and you don’t even remember? Or it’s not even that serious, it’s ’cause somebody said something. Sometimes the biggest issues come from the smallest things and then when you really look at it from that perspective, it’s like, ‘Wow. I had issues with somebody for this long over nothing? Over a misunderstanding,’ you know? So that’s how I look at life now.
So if I have an issue with somebody and I could really look at the pros and cons of that person and they pros outweigh their cons and I had good moments with you, then it’s only right to rectify it and to swallow my pride. Sometimes, you can’t just wait for everybody to do it first now. ‘No, I’m not saying nothing to him’ or ‘I’m not saying nothing to her till they say it to me.’ Sometimes you’ve just gotta follow your heart, follow your instinct, if that person is worth it, you know what I’m saying. So with me and him, I always had respect for him and I always had love for him, even when we had differences. You know, it’s documented, you can go on Twitter. When he was sick one time, I went on Twitter and I saw he was in the hospital. And me and him had differences at the time, but I was man enough to tweet him and wish him well. So it’s those things like that that separate a person that has differences and a person that has hatred. We never had hatred in our hearts for each other. We probably were both very upset at one point, but the love wins, man. I’ve got nothing but love for him and it’s like our relationship is beautiful. It’s back where it’s needed to be.
A couple years ago on Nas’ King’s Disease album, you reunited with The Firm. Are there any plans or hopes to maybe get a full album or another track in the future?
To be honest with you, I don’t really care about that because the way I see it, the most important thing was fixing my relationship with my bro. First and foremost that was more important than anything. Now that that’s done… I’m cool with everybody in The Firm. But at the end of the day, do we have chemistry? Do we really have chemistry? Do we have patience, do we have empathy? There’s a lot of questions that you have to ask dealing with that many personalities. And at the end of the day, I see it as a collective more than a group because if it was a group, I think more people would support each other more. Perfect example, if you look at the group, if you look at the collective, only one person from The Firm has ever put me on their album. And I was only on Nas album, I was never on anybody else’s album. But I’ve reached out to people to be on my album. So it’s like I came to a point in my career where I’m comfortable with my skin. My fan base is growing still which is a beautiful, beautiful uncommon thing and I’m just comfortable in my skin so I don’t have to do that. You know, unless it was a perfect storm, like say Dr. Dre was like, ‘I’ve got 10 beats, right now.’ And the chemistry was right and everybody was on the same page. But other than that, that’s not even a thought of mine. I just wish everybody the best.
Understood. What are three songs from The Realness II that you’re particularly excited for fans to here?
Well, obviously “Glorious” because that is something the fans have wanted for decades. For me and him to do a song, just us. So that’s obviously one. Two, “Her Name.” The first song on The Realness, after the intro, was “American Beauty.” The first song on The Realness 2, after the intro, is “Her Name, which is the sequel to “American Beauty.” And I think the production on this is one of my favorite produced records that I’ve ever been on. The production is so immaculate and I want people to feel that. I want to see if they feel about it the way I feel about it. So I’m excited about “Her Name,” “Glorious,” and the third song would be… I’m excited to see how people receive the Large Professor song because it was so difficult for me to make. Like it was difficult for me to rap to that beat, but he was insistent on me rapping to that beat. So I really want to see the reaction. And once I did it, people loved it, but we didn’t put out publicly yet. I want to see what the public thinks about that.
Another notable feature on The Realness II is Lloyd Banks, who appears on grand scheme. How did the two of you link?
Well, I always have respect for Lloyd Banks. I think he’s a dope rapper and that’s something that we wanted to make happen for a minute. So we said it. And it’s on the album [laughs].
Do you have any plans to hit the road or the tour for this album?
Yeah, I’m gonna go crazy with it. I’m actually in the pre-stages of that now. As I speak to you, I’m in Atlanta so I’ma be running around out here. I have three parties next week for the album release and then I’m setting up shows starting in November.
What’s next for you moving forward?
Moving forward, I’m just gonna rock out with this album. And then I should have a website called Cormega.net up soon. We’ll have information about things on there. But The Realness II is the wave right now, that’s where I’m focusing all of my energy. And in the meantime, I’m trying to finish a project with Havoc. I also have a project with Harry Fraud that was pretty much done, but we might add on to it. So The Realness II is gonna be the focus for me for like at least a year, but during that time, I’ll be creating other music and and being ready to rock out late 2023.