The first thing you notice about N.O.R.E. is that he has nice teeth. His pearly whites are perfectly aligned, stealing shine — quite literally — from the considerable chains slung around his neck. It’s not really the type of thing you’d associate with a rapper, but N.O.R.E. just can’t stop smiling. “I’m doing amazing!” he exclaims, walking into the recording studio at Mass Appeal’s SoHo office.
He has plenty to celebrate. At 41 years old, Victor Santiago Jr. is proving that age ain’t nothing but a number. 20 years after releasing his solo debut, N.O.R.E., the Queens native has become one of hip-hop’s most prominent media personalities with his Drink Champs podcast. He also fronts a food show with Complex called On the Run Eatin’ and has a forthcoming project called Drunk Stories with N.O.R.E. And between all that, he somehow found time to record his latest album, 5E, which was released last week via Mass Appeal Records.
Below, N.O.R.E. tells Billboard about how he stays inspired, the meaning behind his new album, and his early days with The Neptunes.
You’ve been in the rap game for so long. Did you ever hit a wall or think about retiring the mic?
Every day. I got seven different jobs, right? But to tell you the truth, this is how I know I still had it: Mass Appeal only wanted three records at the time. I was like, “That’s great!” I wasn’t really interested in a full-fledged album, but then Pusha-T had happened.
Pusha-T released his album Daytona.
Yeah. That hunger in Pusha’s voice. Then Yeezy, then [Kid] Cudi, they JAY-Z, then Teyana [Taylor] released. 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!
There’s a combination of old school and new school on 5E. How did you decide on the features for your album?
This is not a slap to anyone, but Tory Lanez is the most important [feature] because of his connection to the new generation. We got Fabolous, we got Jadakiss, we got The-Dream, who are [all] relevant, but to me [Tory’s] the most relevant. He’s the guy jumping in the crowd still. All of us? Our knees is bad. I be seeing him jumping in the crowd like, “Damn bro. I remember when I could do that.” [Laughs] I don’t even try now, bro.
I see his relation to the new generation. I see his passion. I see him back and forth with the crowd. That energy is gonna last forever. I was proud to have that energy on the album. I feel that’s the part of the album that the young generation is gonna tune in to.
Is reaching younger fans important to you?
It’s not as important as it once was, but it’s important to me. I don’t necessarily want to promote to the new fans, but I don’t wanna say no to you. If you wanna come down, I’d love for you to participate. But I definitely am not gonna throw flowers at your feet if you’re not a fan already and don’t wanna be a fan. I just believe in myself.
This album in particular, I was inspired. I was focused. I ain’t making old-guy music. I’m making music. 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…
Who doesn’t? I come from being poor. This is motivation. If I could do it with a seventh-grade education, then what the fuck can you do if you got a high school diploma, a GED, or college? If you sit around complaining about being broke, then I think you just ain’t trying hard. You ain’t working hard enough. I literally never stopped working. At one point, I think I was addicted to the money. I have ADD. I have to be busy. I do that with life. If I’m sitting around and not doing something, I’m miserable. I need to be doing something while I’m doing something.
What’s the title 5E mean?
5E is my apartment number. I’m glad you asked this because it’s probably the first time I’ve explained it. Living in the hood, it’s always crazy because you have to share a common space with people you may not necessarily like. When I was living out there, I would walk by people I didn’t like, but I knew I had to deal with them.
What was your building?
My building was 97-30 57th Ave, Corona, New York, 11368. That was my childhood. This is what I’ve been through. When I lived in 5E, I felt like everybody was against me. I had to make an example of how you get out the hood. How do you maintain? Selling drugs is not the only way out. I wanted to be the example: Everyone else who is in poverty, look what someone who lived in 5E is doing for 20 years long.
So, let’s go back 20 years when N.O.R.E. dropped. How were you feeling embarking on your solo debut?
I was real scared. I was like 18. 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 observed what I seen other people doing. Like, how I learned how to drive. I just looked at my grandfather. He had a cigar in his mouth and was like, vroom! I literally just mimic him.
Do you drive with a cigar in your mouth?
Yeah. When I do, it’s a blunt. It’s similar. I was the most scared. I was excited. 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 fucking slack for it.
“Superthug” is the commercial breakout song from the album and also the first major release from The Neptunes. What was it like meeting Pharrell?
It was at Sound on Sound Studios. I’ll never forget it. He walked in with Chad [Hugo] and Rob Walker. I had been talking to Rob Walker, and the way he was describing these guys was not the way they looked. I’m like, “Yo. Where they at?”
Did they look like dorks?
They didn’t look like dorks in general, they looked like dorks to me. This is 44” waist pants time, and Pharrell had on tight [jeans]. He had on a choker. I thought that was hilarious. His first words was, “No one listens to me. The one that will, will.” There was cockiness. He played me a beat, and I knew he was my favorite producer from this moment. Then he played a second one. Then he says, “This third one, I don’t want you to listen to it until you get to Miami.” So, that was what really had me tempted. It was so hard not to hit that third song until I got to Miami.
Take me to Miami. What happened?
I was at the Kent Hotel. I went upstairs [to my room], and I wanted to hear this beat. I put on CD player. The shit said, “Ya, what? You found Manuel Noriega?”
That intro was in the original version?
That was there! I don’t mean it in a bad way, but mentally, my dick got hard. I had never heard someone make a beat for me. The only thing I changed at that moment [was] the girl was saying, “Yeah yeah” [on the chorus]. I changed it to “What what.” I called [Pharrell] and kicked him my bars. I wrote the whole shit right there. Then Pharrell said, “I’m booking Right Track [Recording].” So, I lays my verse. Mind you, I’m dyslexic so I write my rhymes like one joint [at a time]. After my line, I say, “What what what what what what.”
Why did you say that?
It was a placeholder. 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.” He said, “I got a hook.” In the final mix, what’s still there? My whats!
What was your reaction to Pharrell keeping that in there?
I’m like, “They’re gonna laugh at me.” Pharrell says, “All the way to the bank.”