Rap icons Nas and Lauryn Hill will co-headline a sold-out show at House of Blues this Sunday, but it’s hardly the first time their paths have crossed. In fact, Nas owes some of his present fame to a Lauryn Hill guest appearance back in 1996. As two hip hop legends and worldwide superstars prepare to share the stage this weekend on their Life Is Good/Black Rage tour, the Banner takes a look back at their parallel paths to success.
Before they were superstars, Nas and Lauryn Hill were labelmates on Columbia Records: Hill was a member of The Fugees — a trio comprised of her, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel — while Nas was a solo act. The Fugees’ debut, “Blunted On Reality,” was released in February of 1994, and though it showed flashes of brilliance on tracks like “Nappy Heads” and “Vocab,” it ultimately proved an uneven effort. Two months later, Nas released the landmark “Illmatic,” which was widely considered a masterpiece and produced several classic singles but lacked commercial appeal and failed to go gold.
What happened next indelibly impacted both artists’ careers. Shortly after their debut dropped, the Fugees returned to the lab to craft what would become their hugely successful sophomore album “The Score.” Powered by the breakout hit “Fu Gee La,” which featured Hill paying homage to Teena Marie’s “Ooh La La La” on the song’s hook, “The Score” flew off store shelves and the album’s sound buzzed from street corners to college campuses.
Meanwhile, label exec Steve Stoute and production duo Trackmasters set up a lead single for Nas’ forthcoming sophomore album “It Was Written” that sampled the 1985 Kurtis Blow hit “If I Ruled The World” and featured Hill on the hook. The conventional thinking was that it would also become a breakout hit like “Fu Gee La.” And the theory proved valid.
Nas’ “If I Ruled The World” (Imagine That)” was released the same week as The Fugees’ second single “Killing Me Softly.” Both songs crossed over into the pop realm, garnering the elusive mix of mainstream praise and critical acclaim. For Nas, “If I Ruled the World” powered “It Was Written” to 2x platinum and garnered a Grammy nomination in 1997. The Fugees’ “The Score” went 6x platinum by the end of 1997 and took home Grammys for Best Rap Album and Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals for “Killing Me Softly.” Through these releases, Hill and Nas introduced hip hop to new audiences and broadened the culture’s appeal on commercial and artistic levels.
Following the success of “The Score,” Hill began working on her first solo album “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill,” which would eventually establish Hill’s aesthetic as equal parts songstress and MC. The smash lead single “Doo Wop (That Thing),” released in July of 1998, would account for two of Hill’s five Grammy wins in 1999 and propelled “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill” into the stratosphere. To date, the album has sold just under 20 million units worldwide and is responsible for helping to legitimize hip hop as art in the eyes of millions worldwide. Almost 15 years later, it remains the platinum standard in regards to hip hop/R&B albums, claims fans of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and is widely recognized as one of the best albums of the past 20 years.
While Hill seemingly reached her artistic peak in 1999, Nas hit a creative low. He released two subpar albums — “I Am” and “Nastradamus.” Both were commercially successful but considered by many hip hop purists the worst efforts of his career.
In July of 2001, Hill resurfaced after a period of reclusiveness to record an acoustic album for MTV Unplugged that quietly went platinum. That same year, Nas emerged a new man thanks to an ongoing and fiery rap battle with hip hop mogul Jay-Z. In December 2001he released his fourth album, “Stillmatic.” The singles “Got Urself A…” and “One Mic,” in addition to “Ether” — a potent diss against Jay-Z, his then-rap enemy — resurrected Nas’ credibility in hip hop circles and his status as a hitmaker in the music industry.
Four years later, Nas and Hill collaborated once again on the 2005 track “It Wasn’t You,” a song originally intended for Nas’ “NASDAQ Dow Jones” project; when the album was scrapped, the song quickly became a mixtape staple after it was leaked to the Internet. That same year, The Fugees flirted with a reunion tour and released the song “Take It Easy” in 2005 after a live performance at “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” But the reunion was short-lived and Hill again retreated from the spotlight, while Nas continued to churn out albums, including “Hip Hop Is Dead,” the politically-charged “Untitled” and the 2010 collaboration with Damian Marley, “Distant Relatives.”
Their fan bases and iconic status now cemented, Nas and Hill’s paths crossed again, this time on the festival circuit. After taking part in the 2010 edition of Rock The Bells, they shared the stage at the hip hop festival again in 2011, performing their classic debut albums in their entirety. This past summer they brought their chemistry to New York hip hop station Hot 97’s signature concert Summer Jam, taking the place of headliner Nicki Minaj after she left the concert in protest of her treatment by station jock Peter Rosenberg.
Earlier this year, Nas released his 11th studio album, “Life Is Good,” to critical acclaim and overwhelmingly positive fan response. Following a bitter divorce from singer Kelis, Nas sounded rejuvenated and inspired: His rhymes were focused and his production transported the boom bap aesthetic of “Illmatic” into 2012 with the guidance of production heavy-hitters No I.D. and Salaam Remi. Hill, meanwhile, has regularly performed live over the past calendar year, even in the wake of tax evasion charges levied against her in June. Though her performances have been uneven and at times bizarre, Hill seems to be rediscovering herself as an artist and has hinted at recording new music.
In today’s climate of fickle fans, fly-by-night stars and disposable music, it’s rare for artists to have careers that span years, let alone decades. But nearly 20 years after rising to fame, both Nas and Lauryn Hill still rank among the rap elite and their catalogues are filled with undeniable classics. It’s no surprise the Boston show sold out in a matter of days — seeing two of the genre’s greatest ambassadors share the stage is virtually mandatory for any self-respecting hip hop head.
Nas and Lauryn Hill perform at the House of Blues in Boston this Sunday. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m.
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