Earlier this year, the rap magazine XXL raved about Cormega's Mega 2001 bootleg, and Vibe magazine gave the Queens rapper props in its article on the infamous Queensbridge housing projects he called home.
None of these accolades, however, has erased how Cormega who has recently appeared on albums by rhymers such as Prodigy, Screwball and Tragedy had a falling-out with former friend Nas and was replaced by fellow Queensbridge rapper Nature in the Firm, the ill-fated supergroup that also featured Nas, Foxy Brown and AZ.
Yet Cormega hopes his first legitimate album, The Realness, scheduled to arrive in stores July 24, will let him transcend his former affiliations.
"People are definitely going to get beyond that with this album," Cormega said while visiting friends in North Carolina. "A lot of people want to ask me about that, but I don't want to go through the Joe Frazier stigma. As great a boxer as he was, he'll only be remembered as Muhammad Ali's rival. I don't need that. I don't have to base my life on being Nas' rival. I haven't been down with the Firm since '97. People are starting to respect me as an individual artist."
That shouldn't take long, because the 14-cut collection hits as hard as Barry Bonds. Punishing production from Havoc, Alchemist, Godfather Don, Cormega and others should have hardcore fanatics nodding their heads in salute, while Cormega spins among the best introspective tales of street life the genre has to offer.
"Realness is the essence of real," Cormega said. "If I say 'the realest,' that's a preferential declaration. Rap is a bravado art, with everybody saying they're rough, buff, tough and bad. I didn't want to do like everybody else and say I'm the illest, that I'm the king. But on The Realness I'm expressing the realness of my experiences and my love for hip-hop. It just fits."
The somber "Fallen Soldiers" remix, in which Cormega recalls growing up with two now-deceased friends, and "The Saga," in which he explains mournfully that ghetto life is universal, are among the album's more poignant songs.
"I was stuck in my world at one time," Cormega recalled. "Everything was Queensbridge. Now I'm worldly. I've been to London, St. Croix, Boston, North Carolina and Oakland. I'm seeing that people go through the same things. It's not about the East Coast or West Coast. 'The Saga' is about every ghetto, no matter where you're from."
The worldly Cormega will represent with fellow QB residents Mobb Deep on the group's "Murda Muzik" soundtrack. He'll also pop up on collections from Ray Benzino and up-and-coming R&B singer Jonell.
Cormega collaborated with Jonell on "All I Need Is You," a cut from Hi-Tek's critically acclaimed Hi-Teknology album, which was released in May. Although the somewhat tender love song wasn't something fans of Cormega's more hostile work expected, Cormega said that trying a new lyrical direction helped him grow as an artist.
"The beat was so beautiful, so dope," Cormega said. "When people hear Cormega, they think I'm going to say that Queensbridge thug stuff. I wanted to show people I'm not a one-dimensional artist. When Hi-Tek gave me that beat, I did a song about a girl. Artists like the Beatles or Outkast try to explore."
Cormega hopes to give hip-hop fans a more realistic presentation of life than they normally get from rappers who boast about criminal activities but never show their vulnerable side. The Realness explores the pain and confusion that comes with the life.
"Some people just talk a bunch of bullsh-- like, 'I've got a MAC-11, I sell crack,' but there's no substance to their music," he said. "I write my rhymes in a poet's form. I balance the scales. I know I used to hustle and it wasn't the best thing to do. I also know rap music is powerful. I don't want my fans to look at me as that 'real n---a.' I'll tell you about the game and about the pitfalls of the game, too.
"I'm not condoning it," Cormega concluded. "I'm telling you what I went through because I didn't have a choice. I would have chosen not to go through it."