Is Nas relevant? An unnecessary discussion because why not?

OPINION: Rapper 21 Savage said Nas is irrelevant to the current music scene despite Nas having a loyal fanbase and making good music. Was he right? (No.)

Nas performs onstage during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 03, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Over the weekend, while part of a Clubhouse room where rap legend Nas’ latest collaboration project with producer Hit-Boy, “King’s Disease III,” was being discussed, the 21st in the line of Savages made the following comments: “I don’t feel like he’s relevant. I just feel like he got a loyal fan base. He still makes good-ass music.”

I was not part of the Clubhouse discussion — I didn’t even realize Clubhouse discussions were still a thing; maybe I’m not relevant — but I have heard snippets, and Nas isn’t the only artist who caught “relevancy” flak. And to be clear, his comments didn’t go unaddressed nor were they generally agreed with by participants in the room. I think most people who are into hip-hop enough to literally sit in a Clubhouse room titled “Is Nas the Greatest Rapper or What? #KD3” are going to take issue with a comment from anybody making such a statement, much less 21 Savage. For the record, I don’t have any issues with 21 Savage though I can’t call myself a fan. I actually, typically, find him quite charming and self-aware. But his comments are ridiculous and not just because of what he said but because of, well, his own comments. 

Before we go any further, we need a working definition of relevant. I ventured on over to Urban Dictionary to see how the urbans define relevant, and whew chile, education in this country is in trouble. So let’s use a more traditional, actual definition of relevant. Let’s see what Merriam-Webster ‘nem have to say about it. The first definition, which is the most useful here is this: (adjective) having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the matter at hand is hip-hop, and perhaps more globally, music. 

So the question is this: Is Nas relevant to hip-hop? I think the answer is quite obviously yes, but I’m also a 43-year-old who thinks Nas is one of the greatest rappers of all time and still listens to “Illmatic,” his debut album with some regularity. Perhaps me saying “obviously” demonstrates some bias. So let’s use some facts and figures, etc. And oddly, 21 Savage’s own words. 

On Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, Nas released his 15th studio album, “King’s Disease III,” the third installment of what has become his series of album releases with producer Hit-Boy. He has other collaboration albums, as well. While I don’t think we can call a Nas album an event of the same magnitude as Beyoncé, Ye or Drake, a Nas release is still a very, very welcome addition to the hip-hop canon at this point, especially since for the longest, the biggest criticism of Nas has always been his less-than-stellar talent for beat selection. Working with Hit-Boy seems to have more or less solved that problem entirely. While I can’t pretend that I love each of his “King’s Disease” albums, they’ve all been sonically strong with absolute monsters on them. In fact, this latest album features a song, “Legit,” that samples the classic movie “The Five Heartbeats” and immediately became one of my favorite records of the year. In fact, that’s what I ACTUALLY wanted to write about instead of 21 Savage questioning Nas’ relevance, but here we are. Anywho, Nas with a really good solo producer who is playing to his lyrical strengths seems to have ensured that he’ll continue to release bangers of albums, which in hip-hop circles matters. 21 Savage said himself that Nas makes good music. But he’s not wrong about one thing: Releasing good music doesn’t make you relevant. I’m up on several artists that release what is good music to me who wouldn’t have a significant bearing on hip-hop or music conversation. 

But let’s talk about that loyal fanbase. Nas’ debut album came out in 1994. Twenty-eight years ago. “Illmatic” is largely considered to be one of the, if not the, greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Sure, it’s debatable, but it’s in the convo. But that’s that mid-’90s boom-bap. However, in 2020, Nas released “King’s Disease” and actually won a Grammy Award for it in 2021. A man who got his start in the mid-’90s is making award-winning albums in 2020. While awards aren’t relevant to that fanbase convo — I just felt like sharing — what is relevant is that Nas is still releasing albums that hit the top 10 of the pop charts, of which each prior installment of “King’s Disease” has. Which I think counts as relevancy, even to an artist like 21 Savage whose last several projects have debuted at the top of the Billboard pop charts. I would imagine that’s one way to determine relevance. It’s the reason artists like Drake maintain such a stronghold on music; when they drop, they dominate the charts. If Nas is on those same charts, maybe not at the top, but on them right behind, that’s got to count for something, no? 

To add to that, LOTS of artists who first debuted in the ’90s are still releasing albums. Most of them don’t hit any charts or make a ripple or would require a Clubhouse room to discuss their career; meanwhile, Nas is able to do so. That speaks to something, doesn’t it? While Nas might not be part of the conversation that youngsters are having — I feel like this is a safe bet — older fans, of whom many of us exist because we were raised on hip-hop, still find his music and career to be one that’s important and essential to hip-hop. Artists like Nas prove that you can actually have a long career as a rapper if the music and interest remain high enough. And Nas is a millionaire several times over because of hip-hop, which is another bar that these young whippersnappers use to measure relevance. Most of these younger rap cats should more or less wish to have a career that rivals Nas’ longevity and relevance. While many are tremendously successful in the moment, will those same fans keep them relevant 10 years down the line? That remains to be seen, but with Nas we have proof that he manages to make a ripple in hip-hop and music, even at 49 years old, making hip-hop. 

On its face, 21 Savage’s comments are odd just because, well, he was literally in a room where folks are discussing Nas’ greatness AND the release of an album, one that 21 Savage managed to show up in. Like, how can a person be irrelevant when you’re literally THERE, as 21 Savage, to talk about this new album? You’re present for the convo; that has to say something. While Nas might not perhaps be relevant to a younger demographic, that’s not the only demographic that buys music or dictates what albums impact the culture. I realize that we have these arguments all of the time in any circle, but I think that also speaks volumes about Nas’ relevance; we’re not talking about an artist whose greatest moments are all behind him; we can still adjust his rating based on his current output. 

And hell, the greatest point that can be made about his relevance is this one: 21 Savage calling him irrelevant LITERALLY took over a day’s news cycle in hip-hop, which led to 21 Savage addressing it on Twitter, somewhat backtracking by alleging that he didn’t disrespect Nas nor would he disrespect any legends. I think 21 Savage probably didn’t think that pointing out what to him is obvious isn’t negative. Suffice it to say, he didn’t expect to get such backlash and discussion, which kind of points out that, perhaps, Nas is much more relevant than he thought. 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.