“You did not condemn us for being mediocre, you condemned us for not being divine” –Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther #4)
I. God's Forgotten Son
Sixteen months later, the Queensbridge rapper watches peers and rivals receive trophies and acknowledgment at the 1995 Source Awards. Not once is his name called to walk upon the stage or stand at a podium—or to speak of his brilliance. During one of the loudest nights in hip-hop history, Nas sat in silence.
The Roots’ ?uestlove, who was in attendance, observed how each loss welted Nas with bruises. The damage was unseen, but it was there. Body language speaks louder than words. In his 2013 memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, the veteran drummer detailed what he witnessed that evening:
“And for every award Biggie got I watched Nas just wilt in defeat, and that killed me inside. There was a look of shame and defeat. I remember turning to Tariq and saying, ‘He's never going to be the same. You just watch.’”
Following Illmatic’s 5-Mic scoring and the second annual Source Awards, Nas found himself stuck between cultural heaven and commercial hell. He was a prodigy in hip-hop purgatory. Steve Stoute, who began to manage the esteemed wordsmith sometime after the award show, knew he was in a strange predicament. In his 2016 retrospective, The Making of Nas’ It Was Written, Stout confessed, “I didn’t want him to end up being like Kool G Rap.”
Translation: I didn't want Nas to be respected by all, but remembered by few.
The radio was and still is the quickest path to crossing over to a mainstream audience. Unlike the sounds of the underground, commercialized music has the chance to reach a larger audience. Nas and Stoute had a vision for Nas’ sophomore release—a vision that included selling lots and lots of albums. Unfortunately, that isn’t the route everyone thought Nas should take. A golden child is supposed to stay gold, not be allured by the path to platinum. One quote, in particular, though extreme, embodies the fear of It Was Written's “mainstream” sound:
“While I was mastering, Q-Tip said to me, ‘You're killing his career.’” –Steve Stoute, The Making of Nas' It Was Written
II. Disappointed Idols
Losing, much like winning, will change an artist. The effects are unpredictable, but no matter the person, a victory or failure will influence the subconscious. In a culture as competitive as hip-hop, every L taken and every W earned matters. Not only are rappers fighting to be the best, but they’re also doing so before a critical public and contentious peers. With their legacies always at stake, artists maneuver never knowing what will cause their ascension or lead to a tragic fall off.
Think of J. Cole and his 2013 deep cut “Let Nas Down” off sophomore album Born Sinner. At its core, the overly sentimental tribute is about how the Dreamville frontman won at radio with lead single “Work Out,” but failed to gain respect from a legend. Not just any legend, either—the rap forefather who led him to the microphone.
For a developing talent—a newly-acclimated act trying to find comfort in the commercial space—knowing who you disappointed can be more impactful than who you impressed. No amount of accolades and riches can fill a void as priceless as respect.
During the song’s first verse, Cole raps, “Hov askin' where's the record that the radio could play.” The line is a revelation about the process of releasing his 2011 debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story. The label believed a hit single—a record that could take over the airwaves—was absolutely necessary.
In retrospect, the public, including Nas, wasn’t aware of what was at stake when “Work Out” was released that June. They never are. Oddly enough, the most important song of an artist’s career—the one that determines if they are forgotten on a major-label mantle or become a global superstar—is all too often just another song.
“Dion called me when it dropped, sounded sad but sincere, told me Nas heard your single and he hate that shit, said, ‘You the one, yo, why you make that shit?’” –J. Cole (“Let Nas Down”)
Nas reacted to “Work Out” in much the same way Q-Tip did when he heard It Was Written, a successful sophomore LP that did what Illmatic couldn't commercially. Even if, objectively speaking, “Work Out” is the worst song in J. Cole's discography, his entire career trajectory changes without its release. Cole needed to win commercially, not culturally. The pop-friendly vocoder and sunny Paula Abdul sample kept one of today’s biggest rap stars from being another Kool G Rap is a compelling argument.
If there are any similarities to be found in the early careers of Nas and Cole, it's in how the two artists fluctuated between commercial and cultural, winning and losing, meeting expectations and falling short of greatness. Hip-hop doesn't expect artists to be good; hip-hop demands they are golden. When one of the greatest debuts of all time and one of the greatest rappers of all time serve as your introduction, anything less is inadequate.
As far as currently-developing artists go, there is no one winning like Megan Thee Stallion. With exhilarating raps and magnetic charisma, the Houston-born fire spitter has skyrocketed to cultural favorite status. Success did not come overnight, though. Over the past year, Megan has amassed an indisputable level of attention; a rise and following reminiscent of Drake’s arrival in 2009.
Of course, there are noticeable differences, but how the industry and A-list celebrities are standing side-by-side with Megan is telling of the fever pitch currently surrounding her. The same thing happened to Drake following his breakout mixtape So Far Gone. He was predicted by industry insiders and fans alike to be hip-hop’s new Fresh Prince. Everyone wanted a piece.
When Megan teased “Hot Girl Summer,” her latest single featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Nicki Minaj, the announcement felt like a moment in the making; another tick on The Stallion’s scoreboard. The star-studded collaboration brings to mind Kanye West directing the music video for Drake’s 2009 single “Best I Ever Had.” That announcement felt equally as massive. Kanye coming down from Mount Olympus to pull up on a new artist spoke volumes. Sadly, the anticipated offering from the Kanye union was awful.
The reception to the salacious visual wasn't a loss per se, but it wasn't a win. “Best I Ever Had” was confirmation that Drake was right when he rapped: “But slip up and shoot the wrong fucking video and they think they can market you however they decide to.”
That's not to say “Hot Girl Summer” will be a bust—it’s too early to tell if the song has legs—but Megan Thee Stallion is officially in the league now, and every shot she takes comes with highlight-reel expectations. Every decision counts: who she befriends, who she beefs with, even who joins her team.
Imagine It Was Written if Nas didn't have Steve Stoute as his manager, or J. Cole’s career if Roc Nation didn't require he produced a single with "mainstream” appeal. What if Ja Rule never engages 50 Cent in a losing battle? How big does Wu-Tang Clan become if Ghostface Killah doesn’t say “Fuck Hot 97!” during Summer Jam in 1997? Who is Dame Dash if Roc-A-Fella doesn’t split?
The value of winning and losing is difficult to weigh in the present. Pusha-T, without question, is the victor in his ongoing conflict with Drake. However, in response to “The Story of Adidon” and his beef with Pusha and Kanye West, the Toronto-born superstar channeled that animosity into some of his biggest hits—a perfect example of losing culturally but winning commercially. When Drake released “Back To Back,” Meek Mill’s back was against the wall. Now, four years later, after a well-deserved redemption arc, the Philly rapper is bigger than ever.
Today’s wins and yesterday's losses will only make or break those who give them worth. No one can appraise that worth for the artist. That’s why it’s best not to let success inflate your head or allow failure to sink your heart. Game-winners are only made by those who keep shooting.
By Yoh aka Put Some Respect On Kool G Rap's Name aka Yoh31
Correction: In a previous version of this article, J. Cole song “Let Nas Down” was incorrectly referred to as a “2015 deep cut.” J. Cole released the song in 2013.