“The night before the show, I was nervous,” says Nas. “Because I wanted to make sure it was right, and I represented all the right things, and the message I got across was the right thing. There was so much that I wanted to do up there—productionwise, speechwise—that, at the last minute was not even necessary. It was an important moment in New York City—thousands and thousands of men, women and children. And it turned out easy.”
Easy, of course, is in the ear of the beholder. While the police are grappling with the crowd fluctuations, Nas takes advantage of the downtime to share some thoughts on the state of hip-hop. “This is the real hip-hop,” he proclaims. “Not that fake shit. Not that 50 Cent.” After that, a comment about “Dip Set dickhead niggas.” And then, “This is real! I do what I want every fucking album!” This is no way to calm a crowd.
Your fans are very particular in what they expect from hip-hop. They were chanting for “Ether” an hour before you even showed up.
Before I even got on stage, they said what they had to say. And this wasn’t just Queens—this was free to the whole New York City. That was the biggest battle this generation has seen, and there won’t be one for another 10 years that you could compare to it. So that was their moment. That was their “The Bridge Is Over.”
But what about the comments on 50 and the Dip Set?
Again, I was told what the audience said when they played those records. I was told what they did, so I went out there and said, “What do y’all wanna hear? You wanna hear these guys?” If the audience thought they had a problem with me, they were booing it. All these guys that got booed definitely said things about me. So I just went out there and had fun with it. That’s what it is—it’s nothing. It’s only people asking about it [that makes it into something]. They turn it into: “Oh, he dissed him!” Like it’s a song or something. That’s not what I’m feeding into. I’m in a totally different place. I’m too deep in the game to be doing that.
What if someone does respond? What if records start getting made?
That’s not even where my head’s at. I don’t even wanna deal with… I got this record on this album that’s about so much more. I think that would be a downside to the game [if it went negative]. I spoke to the audience what they spoke to me. That was all. That’s not what those things were said for. We shouldn’t even dwell on that, because other guys could use stuff like that to create controversy. Whoever wants to make a [diss] record, God bless. But nobody has to think about me, ’cause I’m not thinking about nobody.
Even though Nas said what he said in front of thousands of people, it had the quality of an intimate campfire chat, one where you tell your friends all types of things that maybe you wouldn’t back home in the real world. In that setting, time and space are suspended somewhat. A temporary autonomous zone is in effect, everyone is an old friend, and protection is in the air.
“That’s what it was,” Nas confirms. “Intimate.”
As far as these things go, it doesn’t even come off particularly mean-spirited. And the rest of the show is amiable, reconciliatory even. AZ, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes all perform alongside Nas, as does Mobb Deep, who have had their differences with him in the past. “That was the first time I saw them in a long time,” Nas says. “When we hugged on stage, that was real.” (Jadakiss and Raekwon were to perform, too, but they were unable to get into the venue.)
In this media-saturated age, though, nothing goes unheard, unrecorded, or uncommented upon. In our interview, Nas is careful not to mention any of the artists he swiped at by name, aware that doing so would exacerbate the tensions that are clearly still there. And he seems genuine in his efforts to rise above.
Case in point: At the Park, towards the end of his set, he runs through the first verse of “Ether,” then cuts off DJ L.E.S., only to be met with more chanting from the unsatisfied masses. “Why you making me do this shit?” he says, smiling and a bit bemused, and then starts the famous diss song over again, letting the audience take over after the first verse. After it’s done, he turns to the crowd and says, in all seriousness, and to the stupefaction of many, “I got love for that brother, too.”
Pressed to explain the sentiment further, he quietly demurs. “Can we do another question, please?”
2001’s battle with Jay-Z was a watershed moment for Nas. Before the battle, he was in danger of becoming relic of a lost age, a rapper who’d seen the game shift around him and who never fully adapted to its whims. However, after proving his hunger was still formidable, he emerged on the other side of the war cleansed anew, laying claim not only to his legacy but also to the potential for an even brighter future.
“One Mic,” another standout from the “Ether” album, Stillmatic, was the sound of a soul decelerating. As rap records go, it was remarkably uncluttered and expertly paced. It was deep without sacrificing accessibility, and it was strong enough to have an impact, even though it didn’t easily fit into the mainstream sound of the moment.
That goes double for 2002’s “Made You Look,” which took a sound that had been worn to the nub almost 20 years ago—the “Apache” break—and gave it new life. Says Remi, “I felt there was a certain element missing. There was a lot of R&B-rap going at that time, but the idea with that song was Hip-Hop 101. I did it the way I wanted to hear it years ago and the way I wanted to hear it then.”
Until “Made You Look,” Nas had never so much as smiled in a video. There was a frustrated grimace in “One Love,” and a defiant smirk in “Hate Me Now,” but not one moment of true joy. Nas’ mother died when he was recording God’s Son—by the time he completed the album, he was recovering, and in full reflect mode. “On God’s Son, I was melancholy,” Nas says, “but I was getting there. Musically, I felt real good.”
And it’s only getting better. “Made You Look” is, for all intents and purposes, the template for Street’s Disciple, and the template for the salvation of Nas’ career. “This is the happiest I’ve been in two years, and the happiest I’ve been working on an album since my first album,” Nas reveals. “It had me worried at first, ’cause that’s not usually the formula for making rap albums. This is beyond-the-money happiness. It’s me entering a third world. I’m 30 years old. There’s certain shit in life you didn’t know before, and now you understand. You look to the next level of your life. It’s like you don’t live until now.”
That happiness is equal parts professional and personal. For two years, Nas has been dating R&B eccentric Kelis, and they’ve been engaged for more than half of that time. He’s got a tattoo of her face on his arm, and together they navigate both the simplicity of life in Atlanta as well as the energy of New York. “She loves it down here,” he says, “But when we’re in New York, we do it up crazy. We walk the streets all the time. We’ll walk all the way from SoHo up to Amsterdam [Ave.], and it’s the best thing happening. She’s my best friend.”
Just then, Nas’ BlackBerry begins to vibrate. It’s Kelis. “Hey, baby!” he says with visible sparkle. “I was just talking about you.”
Kelis and Nas pass much of their time plopped in front of the television watching movies. Formerly a horror buff, Nas has expanded his range thanks to his fiancée’s diverse taste. She’s also helped him cultivate his writing bug. Over the past few years, Nas has written two books: “They’re both fiction and nonfiction. I don’t know what to call them. They’re abstract.” He’s also written two screenplays in partnership with Adisa Iwa. One, called Keeping Up With The Joneses—a tale about a well-to-do Black family who struggles to stay together after the father is murdered, revealing a shady history unknown to the rest of the clan—has been optioned by Universal Pictures. For the other, Sacred, Nas didn’t even wait for a studio to come calling. He fronted the money himself, hired a cast and crew, and shot it DIY-style.
“It was my experimentation with film,” he says. “I have a VHS tape of it, but I never planned to put it out. It was all for my experience of executive producing and writing and starring in a movie.” (The Belly star has no further plans to act, though he reveals that he was offered and declined an audition for the lead in the interracial romance Save The Last Dance: “Hilarious, right?”)
His other creative outlets are the same ones he’s had since childhood: “Art, drawing, making my comic books.” His daughter chimes in, “Yeah, you draw a lot.”
What does Daddy draw?
“Self-portraits. Just regular drawings when he feels like expressing himself.”
What do you draw?
I draw everything, things I dream about. I tried to draw myself once but it didn’t come out very good.
Do you like drawing more than music?
I wanna be a singer, a dancer, and an actress. And I also wanna be an artist later when I get older.
Daddy replies, “How about a writer?”
“Yeah, a writer too.”
On “War,” from the new album, Nas raps about checking out the chemistry between his fiancée and his little girl. “It’s very important,” he says. “K is the first girlfriend I had that she met. I just had really kept distance before.”
As with his career, Nas’ personal life is falling into place—a process that comes full circle on one of Disciple’s best, and most unlikely tracks, “Getting Married.” Sonically, it’s perhaps the most gully track on the record. “Everybody in tuxes getting blunted,” Nas muses, painting a picture of a wedding as a true celebration, hip-hop style, and something to approach without trepidation. “I’m communicating with the world about fears of that commitment, about fears of walking down the aisle,” he says. “Most people reach that place, and I felt that’s a part of my life I wanted to share. There’s no one in hip-hop who’s ever done it.”
“My life is a lot of love right now. I made more than I ever expected to make in this business. I could stop right now, just chill out for a while, and be happy, ’cause I’ve done so much in this game.”
For the first time since his debut, the expectations his fans have for him are aligned perfectly with what he’s prepared to offer them. He’s earned the right to go back to where he came from and stay there—a privilege most artists crave, but few achieve. So while the rest of the genre wonders how best to capitalize upon the movement of the moment, the only burden Nas now has is the luxury of choice. “After the Park,” he says, “it’s like, ‘Wow, what I’m gonna do now?’” ´