Born Nasir Jones, in Queens, New York, on September 14, 1973, Nas is the son of jazz musician Olu Dara. He was raised in the Queensbridge Houses, a huge housing project, where he wrote stories about what it was like growing up in the projects. Despite his interest in writing, Nas dropped out of school while in eighth grade, and his life on the mean streets of New York City would fuel a new breed of writing: rap lyrics.
In 1991, Nas hit the East Coast rap scene with a guest spot on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue,” a song that brought together his writing background with his street knowledge. In wake of “Barbecue,” Nas was asked to pen a song for the soundtrack for the upcoming film Zebrahead, and the song “Halftime” became the first track on the album (1992). That was the big break Nas needed, and he was soon signed to Columbia records.
In 1994, Nas’s first record, Illmatic, was released, and it landed at No. 12 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. Illmatic’s follow-up, It Was Written, was released in 1996, and it made a huge splash on the charts, debuting at No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts. Full of high-profile collaborators, the album went double platinum on the strength of such singles as “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).” The success, propelling in part by Nas’s solid MTV presence, may have hurt his street cred, but musically Nas was clicking on all cylinders.
In 1999, Nas’s output took a big step with two releases: First up was I Am…, which hit No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts, fueled by such singles as “Nas Is Like” and “Hate Me Now,” which featured Sean “Puffy” Combs. Later that year, Nas released Nastradamus, which made it to No. 7 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart.
With success came conflict for Nas, and he was soon embroiled in a feud with Jay Z, each claiming the throne in the New York rap scene in the wake of the 1997 death of Biggie Smalls. In 2001, Nas came out with Stillmatic, and the album addressed the roiling rivalry head-on by using lyrical responses to and attacks on Jay Z’s The Blueprint. The feud was eventually resolved, but along the way Nas was embroiled in others with the likes of 50 Cent and G-Unit, none of which fortunately escalated to the point of East Coast/West Coast rivalries that sometimes ended in death.
All the while, Nas keep the albums coming, and works such as God’s Son (2002), the double album Street Disciple (2004) and Hip Hop Is Dead (2006) insisted upon Nas’s status as one of his generation’s top rappers. Hip Hop Is Dead is notable in that it marked Nas’s first release on Def Jam Records, the label Jay Z was president of at the time.
In 2005, Nas married R&B singer Kelis, but the union only lasted until 2010. Nas addressed the breakup on Distant Relatives (2010) and again on 2012’s Life Is Good, which featured the rapper holding his ex-wife’s wedding dress on its cover.