Your Favorite Rapper Will Fade Away Some Day — and That’s Okay
Illustration: Adrian Mangel

Your Favorite Rapper Will Fade Away Some Day — and That’s Okay

The best emcees never fall off, but that doesn’t mean they stay hot forever

The photo shoot was a wrap. The interview had concluded an hour earlier. Nas was now off the clock, but here he was, deep in the bowels of Hollywood’s Westlake Studios, refilling his Patron and Country Time lemonade, and gossiping about the rap industry.

It was January 2008, six months before the release of Untitled — the album Nas wanted to name something other than Untitled — and he had agreed to a wide-ranging interview with me for King Magazine to address the brewing controversy over the album title. A notoriously reticent interview subject, on this day Nas was talkative and expansive. We touched all the third-rail topics, everything from his feuds with Jay-Z, Biggie, and 2Pac to his thoughts on interracial relationships. The light mood stretched into the evening as the tequila flowed.

After discussing the prolonged rollout for Tha Carter III — the biggest story in music at the time — talk turned to aging in hip-hop. I had opinions. A veteran’s career is over, I stated with Patron-boosted confidence, once a comparable younger rapper elbows into their lane. Flo Rida ended Nelly; Ludacris ended Redman. Nas, then all of 34, stroked his chin, contemplating the notion. “You should know this better than anyone,” I said. “When you came out, you kinda ended both Rakim and G Rap. One day it’ll happen to you.”

The Def Jam rep in the room feigned outrage. “No, no, no,” he shouted. “Legends like Rakim and Kool G Rap, legends like Nas, don’t…” Nas cut him off. “Yo, yo,” the Queensbridge legend said in his weary rasp. “Yo, yo, yo, he’s right. I did kinda end they shit.”

A veteran’s career is over, I stated with Patron-boosted confidence, once a comparable younger rapper elbows into their lane.

As for Nas, critics have been writing his rap obituary since the 1990s. It Was Written was too commercial, they said. The Firm flopped. I Am… leaked. Nastradamus happened. He had the worst flow on “Oochie Wally.” All hogwash.

Here’s where I state the obvious: Nas is my favorite rapper of all time. But following the release this summer of The Lost Tapes 2, it became apparent to me that he too had succumbed to my theory about old rappers. I just hadn’t acknowledged it.

When Nas released Life Is Good in 2012, more than two decades into his career, he was still on top. The album, a meditation into his contentious divorce from the singer Kelis, represented his best work since God’s Son in 2002. Life Is Good debuted atop the Billboard charts with first-week sales of 149,000 copies, marking the emcee’s third consecutive number one debut.

Two years later, Nas reappeared in an altogether different role: éminence grise. The 20th anniversary of Illmatic turned 2014 into a retrospective celebration. Nas was feted with a double-album reissue, a documentary (Time Is Illmatic), and a tour. For all its laurels, though, the victory lap had the unintended consequence of turning Nas into a legacy act.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just three months after Life Is Good, Kendrick Lamar had released his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Where the young Compton rapper had shown flashes of brilliance on Section 80, GKMC was a quantum leap forward, the clear-eyed chronicle of someone wise beyond his years. K-Dot wasn’t just a quick wit with a mean pen; he was a street’s disciple. Just like that, Nas’ lane got a little more crowded.

Yet, with Nas turning 40 soon after, music naturally began to take a back seat. He was an investor now: Sweet Chick, Mass Appeal, and Ring, the smart doorbell company Amazon purchased for $1.1 billion. Nas was finally making the money he left on the table in the ’90s, back when his aversion to touring and endorsements (not to mention his overall IDGAFness) limited his earning capabilities. Every so often, rumblings of a new album would begin — he even made a song titled “Nas Album Done” for DJ Khaled’s 2016 album Major Key — but it wouldn’t arrive until June 2018.

The result, Nasir, a collaboration with Kanye West as part of the producer’s “Wyoming sessions,” moved just 77,000 copies its first week and garnered Nas his worst reviews since Nastradamus. A year later, The Lost Tapes 2 continued the downward trend, debuting with a mere 23,000 “album equivalent units” (a term my old ass had to Google). Worse yet, the album came and went with barely a press run aside from a Daily Show spot and an amazing interview on Drink Champs. Grand opening, grand closing.

But. But! Despite The Lost Tapes 2’s anemic first-week numbers, the album sold more than 11,000 physical copies — more than any other album ahead of it on the rap and R&B chart. More than Beyoncé, more than Lil Nas X, more than Post Malone. In today’s streaming-is-everything world, Nas’ core audience was still rocking with him. A little older, maybe, but no less loyal.

Evolution is a crazy thing. When Nas broke into the game in ’91 with that unforgettable verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” Rakim and Kool G Rap both still had their fastballs. No one fell off; there was no coup. Instead, a transition. When Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard spit the line “I’ll make people forget you like R. Kelly did to Aaron Hall” — the same year G Rap passed the torch to Nas on “Fast Life,” no less — it hit for a reason. The new replaces the old not because it’s better, but simply because it’s new.

This, of course, is decided by the people. Audiences respond to artists who feel like peers. For all their legacy and skill, Rakim and Kool G Rap were the rich uncles at the grown-up table by the time Illmatic came out. There was distance between them and listeners. Nas, meanwhile, could’ve been your friend’s aloof older brother, that dude who put you on to new books and exotic blunt-rolling techniques. But here we are 20 years later, with Kendrick having done the same for a different generation — save for the blunt-rolling techniques, maybe.

Like Nas, who came of age in crack-era Queensbridge, Kendrick is inextricably rooted in a time and a place: post-Rampart Compton. He, too, had the classic debut album brimming with dense, challenging narratives about a thoughtful kid entrapped by his surroundings. He, too, is socially conscious. (Kendrick is, at his core, a Christian rapper — God’s son, even.) He isn’t a kingpin, but he’s not a punk.

And by now, he’s four albums deep — six, if you count the Black Panther soundtrack and Untitled Unmastered. He’s in his early thirties. Somewhere, he might be sitting down with a journalist to talk about whose lanes he took, and who he sees in his rearview mirror. Somewhere, he might be considering his next moves. Six years after he threw down the gauntlet to all of hip-hop, he’s got one Pulitzer and zero left to prove. He knows what Nas knows: that even when singular artists are gone from the forefront, from the charts, those they touched won’t stop singing their praises.

Illmatic defined my freshman year of high school: endless days of shooting hoops and drinking cheap sodas. I copped the Stillmatic CD from the Best Buy on the Upper East Side hours after obtaining my first internship. “The Don” played at my wedding reception. The first time I listened to The Lost Tapes 2, it was just after midnight, and I was sitting on my couch wearing cheap headphones while my three-year-old daughter slept in her room. Nas has been rapping for a long time.

I sat, and I listened, and I had a moment to the Prodigy tribute song “Queensbridge Politics.” Then I thought back to that 2008 interview. Going in, there were three questions I knew I needed to ask: On “Success,” was he talking about Jay-Z? (“Of course. Of course.”) Does he think he’s the best rapper of all time? (“At times I do.”) When he was starting out, did he think he’d still be making albums in 2008?

The answer to that last question wasn’t simple enough to appear as a cover line or a pull quote, but it remains a clear window into the way Nas was thinking about the latter part of his career.

“Did I ever see myself on a 10th album? No, because there weren’t long careers for rap dudes back when I did my first shit,” he told me. “The plan was to get out of the P’s. That was it. Get out the P’s, set up a little something for the homies, go to school, try to learn how to write some other shit — novels, screenplays — or figure out what you want to do in life.”

Hip-hop was an opportunity for Nas, and he took full advantage of it. He moved out of the P’s and eventually landed on the Forbes list. In the process, his music became the soundtrack to countless lives — mine included. That’s never going to change. What will change, always and forever, are the whims of the market. New aesthetics rise, reign, and retreat.

That the charts and streams have moved away from Nas — and by extension, from me — is not only inevitable, but it’s crucial. Part of growing up along with an artist is relating to the arc of their life; when the spotlight dims, that arc becomes easier to see. Sitting on that couch, The Lost Tapes 2 in my ears, I felt as connected to Nas as I ever did. At that very moment, 25 years behind me, a 16-year-old sitting in his room likely felt the same way about YBN Cordae. Each new project is special, each lyric an opportunity to see oneself in their reflection.

Life is good.