For 10 years, Nas has dropped some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard. Still, he’s had plenty of rocks thrown at his throne. He’s been laughed at, talked about, and ridiculed—but never forgotten. Now, finally the QB poet has found peace of mind.

Words Jon Caramanica
Images Kai Regan

“Back in ’83 I was an MC sparkin’/ But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and / Kick my little raps ’cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand / And now in every jam I’m the fucking man.”

Check the chipped-tooth smile: There it is, in all its glory. No gold fronts anymore, but shining just the same. Under a web of clouds that have just shaken their last drops of rain loose, Nas steps out onto the stage in New York’s Central Park to face his faithful. The 4,000 or so fans who made it into the outdoor venue on this damp Sunday have been antsy for over an hour already, shouting down damn near everything that’s been offered. A limp DJ battle: boos. A brief performance by agit-poet Saul Williams: boos. An extended workout by the legendary Rock Steady Crew: more boos, followed by something even worse—utter disinterest.

For the assembled, this is no traditional rap show, something that the host, the legendary radio DJ Mister Cee, learns the hard way. The self-dubbed “Strongest Finisher In The Game” can barely get it started. Tracks by Memphis Bleek and Lloyd Banks are met with resounding jeers. When he drops Chingy, one particularly vocal audience member lets Cee know he’s not in Missouri (or Club Speed) anymore: “Get the fuck outta here with that bullshit!”

The chant goes up just moments after Cee hits the decks: “Ether!” “Ether!” “Ether!” Nas fans want Nas. At worst, they want an artist whose lineage can be traced back to the man who waved automatic guns at nuns, an artist for whom compromise was never an issue—or in some cases, an option. Cee begins to get the hint, going on an extended ’90s New York sojourn that hits upon Jeru The Damaja, Capone-N-Noreaga and Smif-N-Wessun. Each time he slaps a record on the turntable and fades over to it, he eyes the crowd warily, hoping he’s secured their mute appreciation for another few minutes.

When Nas finally arrives on stage, Cee is visibly relieved. Decked out in a wifebeater, sagging Evisus and crisp black Jordan VIIIs, God’s Son saunters from one side of the platform and back again, sizing up a crowd that’s screaming loud enough to drown out the beat from his opening number, “N.Y. State Of Mind.” Blissed-out wifey Kelis watches from the wings, snapping flicks with a digital camera as her man takes to the pulpit. He’s spitting the bars from the song, but the crowd is delirious, almost to the point where they’re not listening. This is their Woodstock.

But in less than a minute, it threatens to become their Altamont, too. About 1,000 or so heads were denied entry to the show due to space limitations. They linger, trapped outside the gates, close enough to hear what’s going on but blocked by fences and a security squad buffeted with members of New York’s Finest. The opening beat, though, served as a call to arms; the moment it dropped, the bum-rush began—with frustrated fans making a mad dash through the barricades, hoping to get lost in the mix.

Some make it, most don’t. And while order is being restored, the powers that be shut down the music. Nas surveys his minions calmly, lapping up the palpable frisson. On a different day, maybe, he would have responded to the scene with anger or resentment, but rather than quibble, Nas takes the opportunity to compliment his people: “We are civilized. We fucking invented this world. Let the devils do their job—we gotta let them know that we came in peace.”

After five minutes or so, the thumbs-up comes from security, and sound is restored. But before starting the next song, Nas stands at center stage, pauses, and takes a deep, respectful bow. And then, standing back up, he does something that in a career spanning over a decade, he’s hardly ever done, or even been inclined to do: He smiles.

Nobody owns rap music. And even though every constituent group has an entitlement complex, perhaps no one grips it more tightly than Nas fans. He embodies integrity and hope for a particular generation who feel they’ve been betrayed by the rest of the game. Accordingly, his every move is scrutinized.

He hasn’t always looked good under the magnifying glass. When he teamed with Diddy in 1999 for the vitriolic “Hate Me Now,” loyalists balked at the collision of agendas and worlds. In that video, he portrayed himself as Jesus, a move only outweirded by his inhabiting the characters of Biggie and ’Pac a couple of years later, in the clip for “Got Ur Self A…”

Furthermore, diehards have chastised Nas for his forays into radio-friendly fare. Pop rap, the thinking goes, shouldn’t be part of the Nas agenda. Indeed, at the Central Park show, when DJ L.E.S. drops the beat for “You Owe Me,” Nas’ decidedly bizarre 1999 hit collabo with Ginuwine, the rapper shouts, “Nah! I don’t wanna do that!” as if anticipating the backlash.

For those who hold Nas to the strictest standards, though, Street’s Disciple, his new double album, may well justify all those years of faith. Seated in a quiet room at Atlanta’s DARP Studios a week after the Central Park show, Nas is profoundly relaxed. He moved to Atlanta two years ago, having fallen in love with its inherent calm and “deep-rootedness.”

“Any one place can be claustrophobic,” Nas says. “Especially a busy place like the city of New York. It’s the heart. So I always keep a crib in New York, but I been living in other places for years—California, Florida, now Atlanta.”

DARP is owned by Dallas Austin, who gained fame as a producer of hits for TLC, Monica and most of the rest of the city’s R&B royalty. He’s decorated the space as a psychedelic rec room—tapestries hang from the walls, filling the spaces in between original works of art and music posters. In the lounge area, a divan is covered with photography books, and a TV hangs from the ceiling, playing silently to no one in particular. It’s a humble, creative spot—clearly the work of an artistic mind—and Nas blends in effortlessly. It’s summertime, so he’s brought his daughter, 10-year-old Destiny, with him. And it’s crunch time, so he’s brought longtime collaborator and friend Salaam Remi.

Salaam is responsible for over half the tracks on Disciple, an album constructed as a continuous narrative. “It’s a story from the first song to the last song,” says Remi. “It all comes down to recognizing where you came from to knowing where you going.”

Says Nas, “I was just reflecting on my life from when I spit those two words, Street’s Disciple”—the first words he ever committed to wax, back in 1991, as a guest on the Main Source cut “Live At The Barbeque”—“up to where I’m at today.”

To travel that path, Nas and Salaam cultivated a sound that is markedly not of the moment. The hip-hop reference points—Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, etc.—date to the late ’80s and early ’90s. And the plethora of live instrumentation on the album—some of it from Nas’ father, jazz hornsman Olu Dara, on the cross-generational standout “Bridging The Gap”—evokes a Black musical lineage that dates back long before an MC spit rhymes and a DJ spun records. There’s even an intro delivered by legendary New York underground radio icons Stretch and Bobbito, who reunited for this project six years after their classic show folded. Says Bobbito, “Do I think it’s cool that he reached back and said we were influential early in his career? Absolutely. I haven’t spoken to Nas in like 10 years. An artist of his magnitude, he could have just shouted us out in the liner notes and said thanks. When Salaam played us the beat, it was like all that old hot shit. I was like, ‘Yeah, money. This is what I’m talking about.’”

But please, don’t call it a throwback. It’s been here for years. Says Remi, “It’s being dusted off is what it is. It’s more like a photo album. That’s what it is, and that’s what it always was.”