The Evolution of N.O.R.E.: From C-N-N to ‘5E’
N.O.R.E. is among a handful of rappers who have managed to stay relevant in the ever-changing rap scene from the late ‘90s to through the aughties. Like many throwback rappers of his ilk, they have moved to either the boardroom (Dr. Dre, JAY-Z), become actors (LL Cool J, Ludacris) or investors (Nas, Rick Ross).
N.O.R.E, whose real name is Victor Santiago, Jr., is comfortable with being an elder statesman in hip-hop. Throughout his career, the veteran rhyme-slinger has reinvented himself on more than one occasion.
Twenty years after releasing his solo debut project, N.O.R.E., the 41-year-old artist has become one of hip-hop’s charismatic Renaissance men. The Queens, N.Y. native hosts the Drink Champs podcast, he’s cheffing on his food series On the Run Eatin' on Complex and he just dropped his latest album 5E via Mass Appeal Records.
In celebration of N.O.R.E.’s O.G. status, The Boombox takes a look back at his evolving career in rap.
Top of New York
N.O.R.E.’s evolution starts when he was called Noreaga, a nickname he adopted while being incarcerated on an attempted murder charge at Collins Correctional Facility in upstate New York. It was there he met with Queensbridge, New York native Kiam “Capone” Holley.
After both were released from prison, Capone and Noreaga would pursued a rap career under the guidance of fellow Queensbridge native Tragedy Khadafi. As the rap duo Capone-N-Noreaga, they wanted to bring their own view of the streets.
"At that time, nobody was coming with like Gambino, nobody was no Escobar, nobody was using no gangsta shit, we came it first," said Noreaga in a 1997 interview. "Not dissing nobody, but we came with it first. Once people jumped in that world, we had to jump out of that world and we changed it to CNN, 'cause CNN covers every aspect of life. You can see watch CNN and see basketball, you can see global history, you can see anything on CNN. CNN has everything, so that's how we just try to come straight different."
Watch Capone-N-Norega's "Bloody Money" Video
The group would eventually signed with Penalty Records (with Tommy Boy Records as a distributor) and release their 1997 debut album, The War Report. The project was a major game changer both musically and lyrically. On the front cover, Capone and Noreaga are rocking camouflage gear to represent their adjoining neighborhoods - 12th Street in Queensbridge and LeFrak City, respectively - as war zones.
Throughout the project, Noreaga refers to Lefrak as Iraq due to the conflicts and gun violence happening in his surroundings. "CNN war report, spread across New York / Guard him Indian style - knees bent, militant / Yo the world know Noreaga from Iraq / Beef with me serious, keep it real, as that," he raps on the gritty "Bloody Money."
The album also features "L.A. L.A.," their response song to Tha Dogg Pound's diss track "New York, New York," which they viewed as a disrespect to their beloved city. Originally recorded in 1996, the song was released during the height of the east coast vs. west coast rap feud when rappers from both coasts hurled disses at each other.
N.O.R.E survived through his beef with 2Pac and Dogg Pound with plenty of stories to tell. He would eventually squash his feud with the Dogg Pound and laugh about it with Daz Dillinger and Kurupt on his Drink Champs podcast.
What! What! What Wh-What!
In 1998, N.O.R.E. released his debut album N.O.R.E. (an acronym for Niggas On the Run Eating) under a solo record deal with Penalty Records. Again, the album would be a game changer in rap. First, it propelled an unknown production duo The Neptunes as viable hip-hop producers. It also solidified N.O.R.E. as a major voice in the game.
"I was real scared. I was like 18 [years old]," recalls N.O.R.E. in a recent interview with Billboard magazine. "That’s still going through puberty, technically. I literally did not know what I was doing, but I acted like I did the whole time."
"I was the most scared. I was excited," he continued. "I was feeling myself but I knew if [the album] worked, I would never get the props. But if I failed? I knew I would get all the f---ing slack for it."
Watch N.O.R.E.'s "Superthug" Video
The album's standout track "Superthug" ushered N.O.R.E into rap stardom and introduced a relatively unknown production duo the Neptunes as viable rap producers. It's arguably one of the greatest rap songs in hip-hop thanks in large part to N.O.R.E.'s no-nonsense attitude and his infectious “What! What! What!" on the chorus.
"It was [originally] a placeholder," said N.O.R.E of the infectious catchphrase. "So, I get out of the booth like, 'Erase that.' I went and got lunch. I kept hearing, 'What what what' still in there. I remember telling, Pharrell, 'We need a hook.' [Pharrell] said, 'I got a hook.' In the final mix, what’s still there? My whats!"
"I’m like, 'They’re gonna laugh at me.' Pharrell says, 'All the way to the bank.'"
N.O.R.E. Introduces Fans to Regggaeton / The "P.A.P.I." Era
After dropping another solo project on Penalty (Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler), N.O.R.E. moved on and signed with Def Jam. With a bigger budget and platform, he released his third solo album, God's Favorite in 2002. The collection boasts two top 10 rap hits "Nothin'" and "Grimey" both produced by the Neptunes.
In 2006, N.O.R.E reinvented himself again and embraced his Latino roots With N.O.R.E. y la Familia...Ya Tú Sabe, which introduced audiences to reggaeton. The veteran rapper enlisted some of Latin music's biggest stars for the project including Don Omar, Ivy Queen, Yaga & Mackie and others. The song “Oye Mi Canto,” featuring Daddy Yankee, Nina Sky, Gem Star and Big Mato, was one of the biggest singles of 2006.
Watch N.O.R.E.'s "Oye Mi Canto" Featuring Daddy Yankee and Nina Sky
In 2013, N.O.R.E. changed his name to P.A.P.I. during the release of his new album Student of the Game, which features street banger "Tadow" featuring Pusha T, French Montana and 2 Chainz.
"P.A.P.I. has always been my nickname in my hood," said N.O.R.E. of the name change in an interview with HipHopDX. "I wasn’t used to people who don’t know me, whoever didn’t go to school (with me would be) calling me 'P.A.P.I.' When I did get used to it, I was like, 'You know what?' It did feel more natural, it felt more realistic and more natural than even N.O.R.E. did, even though I’ve been called 'N.O.R.E.' for 15, 16 years."
Drink Champs Podcast and 5E
In 2016, while N.O.R.E was taking a hiatus from rap, he was introduced to a new medium called podcasting. By this time, the market was oversaturated with hip-hop-based podcasts but he has managed to carve a niche with his successful Drink Champs podcast by inviting his famous friends to his show and share some wild stories in the rap game. One of his many breakout moments on the podcast was his interview with Fat Joe. It was on his show that he reportedly helped Joey Crack squash his 20-year beef with JAY-Z. Their communion resulted Hov dropping a surprise verse on Fat Joe and Remy Ma's remix of “All The Way Up."
"I got to thank Fat Joe. We didn’t know what the f--- we were doing," said N.O.R.E. in a 2016 XXL interview. "We’re mad professional now. You’ll be impressed. But our first [episode], we didn’t know s---."
"Podcast is going to be like rap, everybody raps. It’s a chance for a young Black man to come out and be somebody," he continued. "That’s now podcasting. Now if you want to build an audience, you don’t have to be with no network. You can upload it yourself on SoundCloud and iTunes and Spotify. This is the next wave for young people from the ghetto to be bosses. It’s just been phenomenal for me to being able to win being myself. I’m blessed, man."
Along with his Drink Champs podcast and his foodie show On the Run Eatin' on Complex, N.O.R.E. caught the rapping bug again after witnessing the phenomenal five-album G.O.O.D. Music rollout from Kanye West back in June. He was equally impressed with Pusha T's DAYTONA album.
"That hunger in Pusha’s voice. Then Yeezy, then [Kid] Cudi...then Teyana [Taylor] released," he said. "The kid in me was seeing everyone in the playground. Everybody [was] getting dirty, and I got on white clothes. This guy goes and gets dirty. Then, this guy goes and gets dirty. I wanted to get dirty!"
N.O.R.E. doesn't get dirty, but he does get grimey (all puns intended) on his latest album, 5E. The veteran rapper enlisted his friends on several tracks including Fabolous on the booming "Big Chain," Fat Joe on the gritty track "Bendicion" and on the boastful "Don't Know." Elsewhere, N.O.R.E reflects on his 20-year rap career on "Let Me Be Great" and on the Pharrell-produced "Uno Mas."
"This album in particular, I was inspired. I was focused. I ain’t making old-guy music. I’m making music," he told Billboard. "Will it cater to an older guy? Probably. But if you’re a young dude getting money and you like beautiful women and you like wearing jewelry and you like wearing good watches and good cars...this is motivation."
Watch N.O.R.E.'s Video for "Don't Know" feat. Fat Joe
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