Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest hip hop artists of all time, Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones – aka Nas, aka Nasty Nas, aka Nas Escobar.
At the age of 44, the veteran from Queensbridge, New York has been a staple in hip hop culture for well over a decade, ever since making his debut at 17 on Main Source’s Live At The Barbeque.
Nas’s longevity as an artist is not only a testament to his career, but is also indicative of the slew of rappers that came out in the ’90s – which is affectionately known as the ‘golden era’ of hip hop.
Now before you guys get itchy trigger fingers in the comments section let me put it out there: this is in no way a dig at the current crop of hip hop artists out there today. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and even Drake are proof there’s a space for dope lyrical content.
I could name a long list of post-90s rappers right now who are keeping the culture alive, but we’d be here forever.
But the harsh reality is the quality of modern day hip hop (if we can even call it that) has dropped severely since entering the millennium. 90 per cent of artists are not only dropping music that lacks lyrical content but the longevity of these artists is nonexistent.
In an interview with thePress Association, Method Man, from the iconic Staten Island group the Wu-Tang Clan, said:
The music was way more grounded than it is today. Today, you don’t feel the movement. Back then, you felt the movement
From a glance it looks like artists today are happy to have their moment in the sun and peace out with a cheque they’ll inevitably end up blowing on ridiculous things (which we’d all do given the chance). Could it be today’s young bloods are happy with making something that is flavour of the month, but which will have no lasting effect on the culture?
These are the thoughts that dwell in my head when I think back to artists like Lil Jon (who I once unashamedly/mistakenly compared to James Brown!), Dem Franchize Boyz and Souljah Boy. Yes, they all made bangers that were hot for about a year or two, but now the only time you’ll hear them is at an O’Neil’s or Tiger Tiger. That’s how you know you’ve reached peak irrelevancy.
Now compare them to the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang Clan and other artists that made there debut in the ’90s. I can confidently say that at least two-thirds of them are still touring and dropping LPs (although not to the same record breaking success as their heyday). Basically, they’re staying relevant – by keeping their day one fans interested while also picking up new listeners along the way.
A huge – and very important – factor in this longevity and continued relevance is the fact that artists from that era cared about their content. They wanted to make music that lasted – at least that’s how I feel when I listen to their stuff today. Illmatic dropped in 1994, it’s now 2017 and it’s still as amazing as when I first heard it. Same goes for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the G-Funk/gangsta rap era might be long gone but the joints on those LPs are a lot better than most of what’s out today.
It’s the reason why Cole, Lamar, Chance The Rapper, the A$AP Mob, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Vic Mensa, Vince Staples (who hates the 90s) and the rest of their ilk will most likely last longer than their contemporaries. Yes, XXXTentacion is flavour of the month right now, but how long before we get tired of the same repetitive tracks.
It might sound like I’m being elitist, far from it – I want these new artists to succeed, but the trick is to continuously make innovative, long-lasting content. When Chicago’s drill-rap phenomenon Chief Keef burst onto the scene with I Don’t Like, and then the follow up Love Sosa, he was all music bloggers could talk about.
There was an allure to his background and ties to Chicago gang culture, something that media outlets were quick to exploit. It was that focus on his gangland connections which ultimately led to his drop-off as an artist. We heard less about the music he was making and more about his constant run-ins with the law. Whether that was due to him being reckless or racial profiling is up for debate, but in the end it was stopping him from fulfilling his potential.
What we got from Keef was multiple carbon copies of his first two hits. I compare him to a freshman like XXXTentacion because so far all I know about him is that he got sucker punched at his show in San Diego. The internet was raving about how good his XXL Freshman freestyle was, but in all honesty all I could think was ‘it’s okay’.
At least with ’90s veterans there’s a back catalogue of hit-after-hit you can rely on. From Outkast to Gang Starr, the wealth of material out there is ridiculous.
That’s why it’s weird basketball player Lonzo Ball, who has yet to make an impact in the NBA, can call Nas irrelevant and then make comparisons to Future or Migos. Don’t get me wrong Migos and Future are killing it right now, but they haven’t even touched on what Nas has done career-wise (for the record I absolutely LOVE Future’s Mask Off, despite its nonsensical lyrics).
In fact, it’s weird to label Nas and Jay-Z as golden era artists in an age where album sales are becoming more and more irrelevant. They’re still making music that the masses are buying and sending to number one in the charts. If you look at their last five albums both artists have gone Gold and Platinum respectively*.
You could argue that I’m being too nostalgic, I’m living in the past, or the always classic ‘you’re just too old!’. Maybe you’d be right on all three counts, but forgive me if wanting a little bit of quality from hip hop’s current generation is asking too much. I’m not demanding today’s rappers drop knowledge darts in the club (no one has time for that when you’re getting LIT), ’90s duo Capone-N-Noreaga (CNN) weren’t exactly known for their intricate lyrics, but they still made long-lasting material.
Despite the doom and gloom that’s projected in this article, hip hop is still in a good place, and as of this year it has become the most popular music genre in the world (according to a Nielsen Music report published this year) – even surpassing rock. The NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton is an example of the impact the culture has had – and still has – on music.
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I want to believe in the new generation of artists bringing the culture forward , I really do. In fact I want them to kill off the ‘golden age’ and kick start a new one, but how can that happen when half these guys can’t even pull a decent freestyle?
As I said, there’s still a collective of artists that are reaching the standards set by the legends who came before them, and in some instances they’re surpassing them.
However there doesn’t seem to be enough of their kind, and if they continue to be outnumbered by throwaway artists then sooner or later the genre is going to end up on a WatchMojo article such as this.
*Nas’s last studio album Life Is Good didn’t go Gold.