June 12, 2017
Released On June 25, 2002
Released By Legal Hustle Records
I know I’m getting old. I know this because all of my favorite albums are coming up on anniversaries in the teens, and even twenties. It just so happens that one of my all-time favorite albums, Cormega’s The True Meaning, turned 15 this week. But I realized a funny thing while thinking about the album, the artist and the impact that his work has had on my life. I realized that The True Meaning doesn’t seem old to me because in the fifteen years since its release, it’s never once left my regular rotation of music. I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I’ve always felt that The True Meaning is actually a better album than Cormega’s classic debut The Realness. So what makes this album, which most of you have probably never heard, so damn special? It’s a combination of who Mega was/is as a person and artist, the era in which the album was released, and our propensity to root for the underdogs.
So who is Cormega and why is that so vital to understanding his music? Sure, most people came to know of him from Nas’s shoutout on “One Love,” but there’s a reason for that shootout beyond a friendly acquaintance. By all accounts, Mega was a legend in Queensbridge for, well, let’s just say another line of work. He explains it better than I can on “Introspective:”
“This is Mega / you never heard my chain got stolen, I pitch like Randy Johnson / dudes needed work, I assist like Magic Johnson / before rap, my name was ringing’ in the projects”
In an art form where authenticity is at a premium, Cormega is as real as it gets. When he paints such vivid pictures of the streets, you can allow yourself to feel as though you’re watching a documentary as opposed to a fictional film — he was really there. You don’t have to suspend disbelief. Many of his verses are downright haunting, having bared witness to the crack era in the country’s largest housing project. From “Verbal Graffiti:”
“Streets personify me, like heat I keep beside me / either I be, the most underrated, lyrical drug related nigga who gun be blazin’ in the projects / a prosperous drug block is subject to conquest / Where I’m from, a fiend’ll sell a heater for five jums / dealers scatter when D’s or Y come / R.I.P. is written on walls for people who died young / and niggas either dream of b-ballin’ or to be ballin’ / sometimes it’s hard for me to write, son, the streets callin'”
Just as Mega was a renegade in the streets, he was a renegade in the music industry. After his well-documented beef with Nas and The Firm (by his own account on “Love In Love Out“), Mega went independent. The general feeling was that he was blackballed due to the fallout with Nas and his powerful management. As he states on “Verbal Graffiti,” “The industry didn’t want me in, they tried to condemn me / Sprewell of rap, they even tried to suspend me.” To further contextualize it, this album came at a time when there was still a very clear line in rap between “mainstream” and “underground.” The have’s and the have not’s. So when Mega debuted to such acclaim with The Realness after all that drama, it was a win for the good guys. To see him follow it up with another classic cemented his legacy as one of the most respected underground artists rap has ever seen.
I can’t end this piece without expressing my appreciation for the artist. I’m not going to try to argue that Mega is the greatest rapper of all time (he’s not, and even he would tell you that). He’s great, no doubt. But what makes him so special to me is that he takes his craft so seriously, and you can always tell that he put in so much effort, time, and detail into every release. He cares. He cares not only about his craft, and his legacy, but he cares that his fans get their money’s worth. I know this because of his consistency as an artist. I know this because he doesn’t put out an album every year — he takes his time in putting together quality projects. Consider this: my favorite record on The True Meaning is “The Legacy,” which is essentially a two minute roll call of people nobody on Earth knows of outside of the Queensbridge housing projects. But I know every word, every name, and I recite them every time. I don’t think people realize how important this particular song is. It’s a lyrical time capsule back to the most romanticized era in rap — the late eighties, the crack era. It’s the story of an epidemic, a crumbling community and the people involved. Mega etched these otherwise forgotten names into history because he cares about his neighborhood and the people in it. It doesn’t get any realer than that.
Queensbridge’s most respected rapper.
I’m about to cause some controversy. Stay off the streets around the Queensbridge houses because it might get a bit ugly. Here goes: I think God’s Son is a better album than Illmatic. And, if we’re discussing rappers from that storied hip hop landmark, I’ll take Prodigy of Mobb Deep over Nas any day. This may be heresy, but sacred cows make great steaks, so fire up the grill! This is also why it makes perfect sense that I first heard Cormega not on a Nas track, but on a Mobb Deep song, namely “What’s Ya Poison,” the third song on the infamous crew’s third album, Murda Muzik. Here’s the funny thing: he more than held his own with Prodigy and Havoc, spitting rhymes with vigor and putting together intricate couplets like “Respect this, like a Lexus jeep / My technique, leaves my enemies stretched for weeks, vexed at me,” – but I never followed up. I knew he was releasing his own stuff, but that’s all I knew. This meant I was delighted when J. Clyde suggested Cormega’s sophomore album for our delectation, thinking it was about time. I was also slightly amused, as I have considered suggesting OYR cover a lost album by a different Mobb associate, namely Big Noyd’s On The Grind, which includes the killer cut “All My Peoples.” However, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that True Meaning is a better album than On The Grind. I also doubt I will ruffle feathers to call it an improvement on Cormega’s first album, showcasing his meaty rhymes with lush, soul and R&B-drenched productions by such luminaries as Large Professor and The Alchemist, each track sounding like a classic. The strength of his vision is such that, even though there are 10 producers across 14 tracks, it comes off as a unified piece of work. This may partly be due to the fact that there are no guests, it’s all ‘Mega, except for a brief verse from Large Professor, a brave move and absolutely the right one, as much as I miss the occasional Prodigy cameo. This album is like a manifesto for Cormega, a statement of purpose. Long story short: I love this album. It’s emotional, tough, dark, hopeful, and it just sounds fantastic. As Large Professor says on “The Come Up:” “I watched you come up / Now it’s your time to skyrocket.” Keep flying, Cormega.
“Live Ya Life” stopped me in my tracks when I was on my first trip through The True Meaning — one of those “Oh god, he’s talking directly to me” moments. It was the last of the song’s three struggle-snapshotting vignettes that grabbed me, these lines in particular: “Now you’re faced with a decision/What you love more, stimulation or your children?” The specific context has to do with addiction, but that ultimatum defines so many impasses you encounter as a parent. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say “you;” there are enviable people out there in whom selflessness occurs naturally. Their kids always come first. For the rest of us, there are forks in the road everywhere: Is there enough time to flip through records at Goodwill on the way home? Should I let my daughter watch Trolls for the second time today so I can concentrate on my Off Your Radar blurb? My wife and I just had our second child a few weeks ago, so these decisions have become more frequent and more intense. It’s worth noting, I think, that “Live Ya Life” samples Billy Paul’s “Thank You (For This Blessing),” a gospel-themed soul tune in which Paul thanks God for the gift of life. By focusing on parenting in two of his song’s three verses, Cormega turns that relationship on its head — how do you respond to adversity when you’re the one who gave the gift of life? Fortunately, he wraps up that last vignette by offering a prescription: “You got kids who need you, what you gonna do / The only way you’re going to make things right is to get yourself together / Live ya life.” Easier said than done, but brutally correct. Inspiring, too.
I was surprised to find out Cormega was in his early 30s when The True Meaning, his second album, came out. He decided to become a rapper after his friend Nas mentioned him in “One Love,” about the public housing development where they both grew up. Mega’s been through a lot — hustling turned into selling drugs which led to jail time, all of which he details over a Diana Ross sample on the title track. He talks about men he knows who’ve been in jail “so long they’ve barely missed the street,” yet implores people, whether they “rap or bust gats” to “lay [their] law”—be who they are. He has no interest in people who aren’t real. My favorite minute on the record is a brief voice-only track, “Ain’t Gone Change.” Mega raps about where he comes from and compares his importance in Queensbridge to that of New York Knicks hero Patrick Ewing. Removing any other sound from the song makes it feel like poetry read out loud, and gives more power to the words. The end of “Verbal Graffiti” (where he repeats “what’s the meaning?”) gave me flashes to another OYR selection: These New Puritans, who had a similar refrain in “Numerology,” “every number has a meaning.” I love when these little connections happen in my brain, because it reminds me that even music you thought had nothing in common — New York hip hop & British math rock — can contain similar threads and motifs. While it was released 15 years ago, The True Meaning reminds me of a lot of the local/underground rap I’ve seen lately: tight beats, good samples, with excellent, personal rhymes over the top. That makes it sound simple, but it’s really hard to get right: Cormega’s The True Meaning is one of the finest examples of this style I’ve ever heard.
Chillest party video ever for one of the smoothest MCs around.
Cormega’s The True Meaning was released in 2002, and it’s only the rapper’s second album. However, once you learn that Cormega made guest appearances on tracks dating back to the dawn of the ’90s, the golden-age vibe of this record makes a bit more sense. Not that it was totally rare for hip hop albums to have this dense, sample-laden sound in 2002, but it was definitely on the wane at the time. The Neptunes and Timbaland’s more minimal beats, constructed around synthesized sounds rather than samples, were on the rise. That movement was a big factor in my own slow disenchantment with hip hop in the years following Y2K, so whenever I hear previously-undiscovered albums that go back to that older sound, it feels like a breath of fresh air in a largely unsatisfying world of modern hip hop. For that reason, I appreciate that I’ve been turned on to Cormega. This album feels like it fits in somewhere between Black Moon’s classic 1993 debut Enta Da Stage and Mobb Deep’s 1995 breakthrough, The Infamous. Excellent multilayered beats give a dark, soulful feel to the harsh lyrical tales of life on tough streets where someone’s always after you and you’ve gotta watch your back. Admittedly, I don’t have much experience with that kind of life, but Cormega paints a vivid picture and helps put across the complex emotions that come along with it. It’s not an unprecedented sound by any means, but it’s a good one, and it’s always nice to hear more of it.
A few things about True Meaning stuck out in my mind right from the minute I pulled it up via Spotify. One: There are some short but possibly metaphor / and-or narrative-loaded titles here, which means this could be a very thought provoking album. Two: Oh look, there are “Explicit” labels on every single track. I really hope this isn’t drowning in unnecessary expletives like The Catcher In The Rye. Three: Cormega enunciates so I can understand (virtually) all his words. Good. My mild presumptions ended up being accurate for the most part here, as listeners are spared no detail in explaining past experiences throughout this early 2000s album (“Your son’s stressin’ you out / When he was home, he showed no respect for ya house / Now he locked up, callin’ collect and you about / To put a block on your phone, Til he says you’re the only one helpin’ him out”). Right up front, I am not the biggest rap aficionado. It’s odd actually, as I have great respect for the form itself; I don’t dislike it for any reason that’s fundamentally stereotypical in terms of the negative connotations and sub-cultural elements often associated with hip-hop and rap. Rapping is difficult to do — even when there’s a paper right in front of you with words to a familiar track, literally getting them out of your mouth in a non-garbled and in-time fashion is not nearly as easy as just reading the words off a page. Additionally, the wordplay and thematic through-lines rappers are able to piece together can be quite noteworthy and a tricky but ultimately well executed rhythm that involves cramming many words in not as many seconds, deserves praise. Somehow though, the art form within the genre of hip-hop, simply doesn’t manage to be first in line to catch my attention. Still, it feels only right to acknowledge that I recognize plenty of good about this pick, even if I wouldn’t necessarily reach for it unprompted. The transparency offered on True Meaning actually led to it getting a lot of my attention, if for no other reason than some sort of unspoken respect for what was being put out there. Highlights like the less-than-minute-long but entirely a capella track, “Ain’t Gone Change,” come across with a stripe of extra seriousness even beyond its bleak subject matter, thanks to its completely exposed and almost beat-poet- esque delivery (“My physical form grew stronger in a Riker’s Island cage / Only as to weaken so many of my people / Passed away like leaves in the wind / Or kids blowing ashes from trays / I possess the ghetto essence of that which I portray / I’m an emotional chameleon, see how I adapt to pain”). I might never fully stop twitching at the drop of the N-word in lyrics but I give much credit for what Cormega produced here with True Meaning.
His tenacious talent and gritty authenticity made Cormega a true superstar, even without the support of a major label.
Cormega’s 2002 release, The True Meaning, is a strong follow up record to his debut release from 2001, The Realness. Possibly one of the most overlooked albums by one of the most underrated rappers to come out of the New York City projects, this record is an earnest look at life on the largest public housing development in North America. The lyrics are simply powerful, showcasing Cormega’s in-depth introspection and brevity. Unlike other mainstream rappers, Cormega’s tone is more matter-of-fact but that’s not to say it lacks heart. His work on this record is both insightful and poignant — with The True Meaning, you get less bravado and more depth for your dollar. In “Ain’t Gone Change,” Cormega displays his lyrical prowess by performing what feels like a biography on fast forward completely a cappella. He ends the track by saying ‘I’m Queensbridge’s most respected rapper, that ain’t gone change’, and I can see why. To follow up this impressive feat, Cormega debuts the record’s title track, a powerful homage to life in the projects that utilizes samples from Diana Ross’ Sleepin’ to help emphasize the daily struggles he faced during his formative years which he goes on to relate to the greater Queensbridge community. There are plenty of other stand-out tracks showcasing Cormega’s intimate versatility too from “Love In Love Out” to “Built For This,” and even “The Come Up” which includes a guest verse from the Main Source legend, Large Professor. So whether you’re a hip-hop aficionado or a complete beginner, you don’t want to let this record pass you by.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
The True Meaning does something that I really value in all of my favorite rap albums: Each time I listen to it, I feel like I’m watching a movie. The star of this one is Corey aka Cormega. He has been betrayed by almost everyone he grew up with. He lives a paranoid and cynical life so insulated that he can’t even open himself up to a woman who wants to love him. It’s a fascinating narrative. Looking up Cormega’s biography, it became clear that a lot of what he is writing about is based on real events, which makes some of the more intimate feelings he reveals even more affecting. Uninitiated to Cormega’s true meaning before, I now have tons of great songs to fall back on, including the title track, “Soul Food,” “Love In Love Out,” and the brief, yet impactful a capella jam “Ain’t Gone Change.”
Packed with a versatile flow and an endless supply of sharp observations, The True Meaning is a great showcase of what made Cormega such a favorite among rappers in the ’90s. Over timeless beats and samples, True Meaning unfolds Cormega’s elaborate psyche to the world, one most might assume would be consumed with bitter jealousy and petty vengeance after his nasty split from Def Jam. Songs here and there touch down on this pivotal moment in Cormega’s career, but he never lets it weigh down his message or music, choosing instead to get his revenge by working harder and being the best he can be. And it pays off — handsomely, I might add. Songs like the title track hit hard with sturdy and evocative samples that set the stage for his outstanding lyrics that neither glorify nor condemn his former life of crime, but rather contextualizes them with the struggle of life that anyone can relate to. The lead-in to that title track, the fiery a capella story “Ain’t Gone Change,” might be the album’s most striking moment as Cormega explains how “Queensbridge’s most respect rapper” came to be as his solitary voice beautifully expresses the uneasy conflict of his past and the triumphant bravado of his present. Even the lesser tracks like “Take These Jewels” are exemplary on this record as Cormega doesn’t settle for the expected level of filler that occupies even the best rap record. He’s not interested in settling. Ever. Each track needs to have that declarative voice and penetrative mind at the forefront and its this approach that makes True Meaning a true classic.
Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana by Ringo Sheena
Chosen By Guest Contributor Courtney Swain (Bent Knee)