Pete Tosiello told this story to Wiz and Kanye to keep ’em together.
“A man is condemned or exalted by his words.”
-Cormega, multiple songs, The Realness (2001)
Sometime early in Obama’s second term, Cory “Cormega” McKay woke up to discover he was one of rap’s honorable elder statesmen, and he ran with it. Once the imprisoned neighborhood drug dealer immortalized on Nas’s “One Love,” he’d gone on to amass a relatively unimpeachable two decades of solo albums, but would never again sign a major label deal and have the chance for stardom beyond I-95’s northern corridor. 2016 finds him surveying a legacy kicked into motion by his debut The Realness with a tour commemorating that album’s fifteenth anniversary. But retrospective appraisal is difficult because Cormega’s music was always founded much more upon what could and should have been than what was.
Fiercely territorial and ferociously combative, Cormega’s career was built upon the dramatization of male relationships, detailing a complex code of honor, betrayals, heel turns, folks grown too big for their britches, paid dues and unpaid debts, and friends lost to the streets, jail, or worse. Through it all he was never accused of catching feelings, an odd imperviousness because at times he seemed capable of little else.
At his best Mega had one of the keenest eyes and sharpest pens in rap, an MC whose overflow of emotion was matched by his ability to articulate it. Most rappers as literate as he lack the sentiment to seem anything but calculating, and unlike Nas he could achieve poignancy without needing to bash the listener over the head with concepts and wordplay. At his worst, Mega was a petty guy kept awake at night by schoolyard grudges and scoring revenge fantasies for every perceived slight.
None of which is to say that Cormega had an easy road. His mother was murdered in front of him and he spent some of his twenties behind bars, delaying a well-charted rap career as Nas and fellow Queensbridge natives Mobb Deep became stars. He was dropped by Def Jam after recording a fantastic record which ended up shelved, then ceremoniously booted from the Firm and replaced with Nature. Yet the records he recorded in his thirties, most notably The Realness and The True Meaning which established him independently in the early 2000s, are predicated on his being a victim, a tragic figure prevented by sheisty labels and two-faced old pals from achieving his due greatness.
If Cormega’s greatest weakness was self-pitying vulnerability, it was only rivaled by his insularity. The Queens street politics so painstakingly mapped by Mega as well as Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga, and Tragedy Khadafi only now seem peculiar because they’re no longer a dominant perspective within mainstream rap. They created a template for successors to beatify project martyrs who somehow ate bids for the entire crew, if not the whole neighborhood. Snitches were aired like the grievances at Festivus (another hallowed Queens tradition, lest we forget), because informants who share a housing development with 8,000 people can’t exactly lie low. In The War Report’s cover art, one man is cut out of the crew photo like an ex-wife and replaced with the Courier ledger “Traitor.”
Listening to Cormega’s latter day LPs—2009’s Born and Raised and 2014’s Mega Philosophy—is a pleasure because he’s no longer searching for reasons to re-aggravate the chip on his shoulder. He sported a newsboy cap and spouted Basquiat references, hoping they’d serve as visible evidence of maturation into the wise street scholar he was always meant to be. But it wasn’t quite consistent with his narrative. Everyone deserves the chance to grow up, but when a forty-something Cormega rapped wistfully about his childhood it was difficult to overlook the decade-plus of aggrieved sniping at his childhood friends that led him there.
None of Cormega’s circle exists independently of one another. The entire conceit of, say, Capone-N-Noreaga is obsolete outside the context of the Intelligent Hoodlum, “Eye for a Eye,” and It Was Written. Perhaps this can be said of any identifiable music scene, but the Queens guys—from the best to the worst of them—are so reliant upon an intricate web of interrelatedness that an outsider could probably only look at someone like Big Noyd and scratch his head.
The drama surrounding Mega and his peers is worthy of a soap opera, but it’s also probably not too dissimilar to that of any friend group. As friends grow up and grow apart some overachieve, some underachieve, and some get fucked a few times along the way. Some are haunted by misfortune and missed opportunities and hold others’ success against them.
Even still, charting the grudges of these old cohorts—grown men all—is a science unto itself. Mega and Nas’s blood feud lasted a decade until they got over it. AZ stayed out of the heaviest Firm beef but isn’t too cool with Nas and maybe never was. Havoc and Prodigy fall in and out with the gang when they aren’t falling in and out with each other. Tragedy Khadafi is back making CNN records. Nature’s probably on a corner in QB right now talking shit about the whole crew. Large Professor looms somewhere over all of this, the man who put on Nas in ’91 yet outwardly has Mega’s back above anyone else’s. None of them aged well because none had a sense of humor.
Cormega was and is an incredible rapper who could never overlook the bonds forged and broken on the streets and in the studio, and based on his body of work and those of his peers, the outcomes of those friendships are the defining events of their lives. The same could be said to varying extents of 2Pac, Biggie, 50 Cent, and the Game, but the blood of the Queensbridge fraternity runs unusually thick and hot. It’s why Big Twins gets guest spots on your favorite rapper’s albums and Blaq Poet still gets to make records with DJ Premier. Stillmatic is most remembered for “Ether,” but it’s also the record where Nas put damn near his entire neighborhood on blast.
If Nas and AZ never seemed human enough, Cormega was too human, but today he is making better music than any of his celebrated peers. Mobb Deep is a nostalgia act, Noreaga struggles to balance self-parody with his natural tendencies, and whether he knows it or not, Nas buckles more each year under the weight of being Nas.
As a rapper, Cormega strove to be a crusader for truth in its many forms and interpretations—his aptly titled albums The Realness, The True Meaning, and The Testament canonize the real and excoriate the fake. The truth is, it’s a shame these guys all had moments of glory and couldn’t celebrate them together.