How Cormega Survived Beef, a Bid, and Blacklisting to Become an Underground King
Photo: Christopher Sanders

How Cormega Survived Beef, a Bid, and Blacklisting to Become an Underground King

The Queens rapper speaks on the road to his new album, ‘The Realness II’

For many ’90s rap heads, initially seeing the tracklist for Nas’ 2020 album, King’s Disease, brought a collective eyebrow raise, a nostalgic gasp, an anticipation for a moment many thought we’d never see again.

That album’s tenth track, “Full Circle,” reunited members of one of rap’s short-lived but truly elite supergroups, The Firm, which, along with Nas, included AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega. The latter’s presence was most refreshing, considering Mega and Nas’ childhood friendship that devolved into a bitter rivalry for years before the two Queensbridge lyricists buried the hatchet.

“There’s a difference between his relationship with me and his relationships with other people in the industry,” says Cormega, who hosted Nas on “Glorious” from his own freshly released project, The Realness II. “It was long overdue for us to make music—especially just me and him alone. We’ve never done that before, so here we are. I’ve seen men get emotional, seen men cry [listening to “Glorious”]—that shows how passionate those guys were about seeing me and Nas back together.”

"I don’t want to leave behind a legacy that will embarrass my daughter and son."

Truth is, though, Cormega has been out here releasing high-quality music for decades. Since becoming an early indie rap success story with his maiden 2001 release, The Realness, the streetwise MC has never chased trends nor compromised his sound, commanding respect from those who crave a steady diet of wisdom-packed bars. His first full-length album in eight years, The Realness II (released via partnership with Viper Records), offers free game, tributes to rap legends (the Biggie and Wu-Tang homage, “White Roses”), and a guest list that boasts The Alchemist, Lloyd Banks, and Havoc of Mobb Deep.

“Me and Havoc have been talking about doing an album… We already started,” says Cormega, who is also sitting on a project with producer Harry Fraud. “Havoc is gonna be both rapping and producing. We’re going to get different producers also. Let’s see what happens. Some things take longer than expected. I’m patient.”

Mega always drops jewels for your domepiece if you listen closely. The perspective is the result of a lifetime of highs and lows—from living through a prison sentence (immortalized on Nas’ “One Love”) to returning to that facility years later as a performer. From seeing his career be ensnared in major label red tape to blazing his own trail. From growing up in a treacherous environment to being able to show his own children a better life.

LEVEL hopped on a call with Cormega to discuss his long road here, how he’s evolved over the years, and the philosophies that navigate his moves in life. —As told to Eric Diep

Recreating The Realness album cover [for The Realness II] was nostalgic. That’s the building in Queensbridge where I grew up and looked out the window thousands of times, doing things I shouldn't be doing. I seen my friends, cops coming on the block. I counted money in that hallway, seen somebody die in that hallway. The new picture reflects the transition from that moment to now. Even my posture—how I look at the world—is different.

I don’t use the word “bitch” in my music anymore. It's offensive, and I got a daughter.

Fatherhood made me aware of everything I say. I don’t want to leave behind a legacy that will embarrass my daughter and son. I want my legacy to empower them.

Where I’m from, I’ve walked in the shadow of death. I could probably name 30 people that got killed. I know people that go their whole lifetimes without knowing 30 people that got killed. There's some that made it, but a lot of my close friends are dead or in jail.

I was, like, the most popular shout-out in history.

Performing at Rikers Island with Fat Joe and Big Pun [in 1998] wasn’t just about singing and dancing and entertaining. It was about hope. Inspiration. When you’re an inmate, you’re taught to believe you don’t have a chance in society. That's why a lot of guys end up going back; they revert to their old ways or try new hustles. Me going back to Rikers Island was important because the adolescents that were there got to see, “This guy was here like we are, and he’s doing something with his life. Maybe I could follow my dream, too.”

There were people that went indie before me but not many. And not many had the success that I got with The Realness: charting on Billboard, over 100,000 [units sold], No. 1 new artist in the country for two weeks in a row. It exceeded expectations on every front. But it was a lot of work. Sleepless nights. Driving to different states. Going to record stores, radio [stations], mom and pop shops—not just the big corporate stores—and shaking hands. A lot of sweat equity went into that.

Nobody knew independent was that route. I didn’t even know it. It’s like being a runaway slave—you’re just trying to get the fuck out of there. You don’t have a GPS, though. I was just trying to get the music out and escape the bullshit of that plantation called the industry. I made it to freedom.

There are no wack albums in my catalog. It’s almost like buying Ralph Lauren: You know it’s going to be in style 10 years from now. You know what you get when you buy a Cormega album.

When you listen to fans, it’s like being in a boardroom meeting or being given customer surveys. That’s how I sometimes know who to do music with.

Me and Nas are in a good place right now. And the place we were before, we had no business even being in it. Now we understand who we are, what we mean to each other, and what we mean to the culture. We see through a different lens. We know it was long overdue for us to make music.

You can achieve more with patience and empathy than with impatience, lack of belief, and lack of understanding.

Longevity is at the expense and mercy of God and your fans. You can be the hottest person in the world and people can turn their back on you. One wrong move and you’re gone—especially these days.

Appreciate the good in your life. Don’t focus on the bad. Focus on the good.