I’ve already covered why Lonzo’s comments were right; let’s talk about what his comments missed.
For context: On Thursday of last week, NBA Lakers draftee Lonzo Ball caused a major rap internet short-circuit when an out-of-context sequence of interview clips from his family’s reality series, Ball In The Family revealed his feelings toward hip-hop legend Nas. “Nobody listens to Nas anymore,” he tells the off-camera producer during a confessional session. This was enough to get rap fans riled up, but it was the second part that sent them over the edge. “Real hip-hop is Migos and Future.”
Now, I’m not going to debate the definition of “real hip-hop,” as that categorization is just as slippery as Migos’ number one streamed song on Spotify, with goal posts that move more than a pop-a-shot backboard. But, although Ball made a pretty good — and easily provable — point about kids of his generation not really rocking with Nas like that, he did raise an interesting question by placing Migos and Future in contrast to a thirty-year industry vet. Could Future and Migos one day be the artists that salty old rap heads yell at their kids about twenty years down the line? Nas is a legend; do they have what it takes to be?
Migos formed in 2009, and their first full-length project was a mixtape titled Juug Season, released late in the summer of 2011. Nas’ official recording artist career began almost exactly twenty years before, in the summer of 1991 on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” off Breaking Atoms. While Nas’ debut sparked a furor for a full-length from the then 19 year-old rap wunderkind, it took Migos two years to break out, with the release of “Versace,” and its accompanying remix featuring Mr. Midas touch himself, Drake.
Migos went on to release two mixtapes and an album over the next two years, increasing in acclaim and popularity. Meanwhile, Nas’ first major release, Illmatic, took nearly three years to record, and despite its classic status and widespread critical acclaim, which are both cited much more than the album’s commercial reception, took nearly ten years to certify as platinum in an era before streaming. In other words, when it came time to vote with their dollars, fans weren’t as enthusiastic in supporting Nas as with their words (which were usually attacks in response to other rappers’ prominence, a la Youtube comments on “pop rappers'” videos).
Nas was able to carve out an extended career, but there was a time he was considered washed-up. The same-year release of I Am… and Nastradamus hadn’t endeared the Queens rapper’s musical output to fans. While commercially successful, both albums were largely panned by critics and fans alike, and Nas’ career looked like it was on a serious downturn, until Jay-Z lit a fire under him with “Takeover.” We won’t rehash the battle here, but what’s interesting to note is that despite Nas’ subsequent output almost always earning a favorable critical response, his sales don’t always reflect his albums’ resonating with fans. Actually, the highest certification since his career renaissance at the beginning of the millennium has been gold status. As we all know, Jay has other ways of gaming that system.
Meanwhile, Migos have been certified equivalent platinum for both of their major releases, and their mixtapes usually spawn at least one or two monster singles. Culture received generally positive reviews and “Slippery,” “T-Shirt,” and especially “Bad & Boujee” have created massive pop cultural moments. While the average lifespan of those is usually very short, their reach is greater; while Nas is a common name among hip-hop heads, Migos are household names everywhere. Nas was never asked by Katy Perry (or any pop star that I can remember) to perform with her on national late night TV — even if it did get Migos in a little hot water. I can see a longstanding musical following for them, possibly not quite as long as Nas’, but long enough that we’ll look back on them fondly and consider them pivotal to hip-hop in the same way we revere Lil Jon’s early-2000s run.
Future’s musical tenure extends nearly double the time of Migos; he first came to prominence as a member of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family collective, which counts artists such as Outkast and Goodie Mob among their number. Future’s solo success came on the heels of mixtapes including 1000, Dirty Sprite and True Story, bridging the gap between “ringtone rap” and the more authentic-seeming street tales of early trap rappers like T.I., Gucci Mane, and Young Jeezy.
Future’s popularity has at times rivaled that of prime Lil’ Wayne, yet it seems like he hasn’t quiet had a culture-shifting movement on his hands, not in the way Weezy transformed the genre into something parents could readily recognize. Future’s songs don’t dominate radio the same way, and a significant portion of his fame (or infamy) comes attached to reactions to his short-lived marriage to R&B singer Ciara and her new husband, NFL player Russell Wilson. Even so, in 2017 Future became the first artist to debut two albums at No. 1 two weeks in a row on the Billboard 200 with HNDRXX and Future.
If anything, it would appear Future’s prolific output might be his nemesis with regard to creating enough cultural impact to maintain his longevity the way Nas has. While Nas lets years go by to increase anticipation for his latest projects, fans never have time to miss Future, whose mixtapes release at a pace that is nearly impossible to keep up with. By the time you learn the words to DS2, EVOL is already on the way, with What A Time To Be Alive sandwiched between the two. It’s hard to differentiate or appreciate projects at that rate. Future couldn’t maintain a twenty year career without either the fans or himself just plain old getting burned out.
Whether or not Lonzo Ball’s assessment of Future and Migos’ real hip-hop status matches your own, one thing is for certain: Both have a ways to go before being mentioned in the breath with Nas in terms of legacy. Look no further for proof than the fact that Lonzo specifically mentioned Nas, an artist whose career began nearly a decade before Lonzo’s life did, for an example of real hip-hop. Of today’s crop of rap talent, there are very few certainties about who will still stick around a few decades from now, but mainstream America never thought hip-hop would take it this far, either. Only time will tell.