his Saturday, Nas’ magnum opus Illmatic turns 20. The Queensbridge native’s journey into becoming a legendary MC all started with a groundbreaking debut that captured his worldview of the projects through a sharpened lens. XXL is celebrating the monumental anniversary with Nas Week, and we are proud to present you with every cover the iconic rapper has appeared on. Now let us take a trip down memory lane.
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Radio disses. Secret mixtape songs. Chatroom debates. It looks like 2001 could be the year that conflict rears its ugly head in the rap world again. With the ghosts of B.I.G. and 2Pac hanging over his head, Nas attempts to clear the air on rumors of a feud between himself and Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella familia. Who the fluck, want, what?
There’s a storm very much alive in NYC, so Miami’s South Beach is the perfect place for Nasir Jones and his Braveheart’s crew to film the video for their recently detonated single “Oochie Wally.” Right now, more than ever, Nas needs to be surrounded by his QB family. The tribe of succulently figured models don’t hurt either. Laid back in his trailer’s mini-apartment, decked in an exclusive, gray and orange, Maurice Malone hoodie to help him endure the January breeze blowing off the Caribbean, it would appear that the MC, regarded by many as one of the best to ever hold a mic, is chillin’—even at peace. But that appearance couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Nas labors in the embryonic stage of creating his fifth LP, Nastalgic, he also tries to elude the demons that plagued his last and most criticized album, Nastradamus. He’s also assisting his Braveheart’s crew—which includes his younger brother Jungle—with its entrance into the rap game. This feat is more difficult than it sounds. Nas has to avoid the pitfalls that ensnared him while helping other MCs through hip-hop’s doors, i.e., AZ and Nature. Plus, there’s more at risk here. The Braveheart’s include his flesh and blood, and friends he grew up with on the same block. “Things change when money’s involved,” says Nas. “When you got people to feed. The difference here is they’re family, so I’m not expecting it to be straight perfect.”
Already an established rhyme veteran, who recently spearheaded the QB Finest compilation (he calls it “the only hood album”), Nas now wants his business as tight as his flow. He has severed ties with longtime manager Steve Stoute (in the aftermath of Stoute’s Puffy-delivered beatdown), and has since ended his partnership with the Esco clothing, stating, “I ain’t fuckin’ with that fake Esco shit no more.”
If all that weren’t enough for Nas to think about, he has to deal with the storm back home, one that’s not caused by the weather, but by hip-hop itself. A week before Nas jetted to South Beach, Jay-Z took his Roc-A-Fella camp to visit DJ Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show for a freestyle session that included some very disrespectful banter toward Nas. The following week, the irate QB soldier paid his own visit to Hot 97, stating that, “They woke the lion up.” But Nas isn’t slapping the war drums. He’s now faced with the challenge of maintaining his street credibility without igniting another rap war similar to the one that flared between him and 2Pac after ‘Pac called him out on his 1996 Makaveli… LP.
Nas is a careful man, but he’s torn; tip-toeing the tightrope that hovers over right and wrong; between what his God has taught him and how the streets have schooled him. Attempting to simultaneously keep his ears to the streets and his eyes on the Billboard charts. Fighting to demand respect without disturbing the peace that’s existed in hip-hop since the deaths of ‘Pac and Biggie. What’s an MC to do? Over some Hennessy and Hydro, Nas tells us.
XXL: Your last couple of verses have been real fiery, like you got something behind them. What’s your current mind state?
Nas: The mindset is like coming back from a hiatus. I’ve been real underground lately, experimenting with different things. That’s what I like to do, just grow. Now my mind state is just trying to do this album, lay down the best shit I ever did thus far.
A hiatus, physically or musically?
Musically. I’ve never been a seen character on every set. I’ve always been kinda low, but I’ve been real low the last year-and-a-half. It’s always been put out an album, do a video, go on tour, come back home, do another album, do more videos, do another tour, come home. That was my whole system. After about six years of that, I needed a change. My grandmoms died, so I been just chillin’ with family, chillin’ with my moms, spendin’ more time with my little daughter.
Is the new album gonna be called Stillmatic?
That’s what’s in the air now. I got a few other titles that I’m playing with. [Ed.: At press time, Nas had settled on Nastalgic.]
Is Stillmatic a reference to you going back to your origins?
That’s definitely the aim.
Do you feel you’ve strayed too far from Nasty Nas and your classic debut?
I feel like I grew, as every artist does. I grew up listening to great artists and, one thing I know is that they grow. The ones I respect the most are Dr. Dre and LL because of their longevity. And I wanna follow the footsteps of those dudes. Dudes that are always gonna hit you with new thoughts that people can relate to, and move some units at the same time. So I’m like one of those main niggas.
So those would be your idols?
Gotta be, because I was the only one… After [them], it would have to be Biggie and ‘Pac that I honestly feel matter on some real shit. No disrespect to nobody, but fuck it if they don’t respect it. I respect Dre and LL.
You’re talking about hip-hop icons. In the current crop of MCs, do you feel that you’re the best?
Nah, there is no best. We all a part of the conjunction. This is God’s music. God gave us this to bring us up outta this hell, break through the barriers and touch all races with reality—not just with our experiences, but with life, with realness. So I can’t say that nobody’s the best. One day I might be listening to one nigga’s album and loving him to death, next week listening to another nigga’s album and be like, “Oh, he’s the coldest.” Then I’m like, “Oh, OutKast, they shit is crazy!”
Is the new album gonna be the sickest since Illmatic?
It’s gonna be the most different from Illmatic. It’ll bring back that vibe though, ‘cause it brings me back to that vibe while I’m working on it.
Do you think your hiatus helped you get the Illmatic vibe back?
Definitely, but not intentionally. It’s just growing. From my first album, it was like telling stories with the album covers. First, it was a boy, then a man, then a king, then to great knowledge and spirituality, dropping that album Nastradamus in ‘99 to come out before the year 2000. I ended off my era right there and now it’s a whole new beginning.
Reflecting on the Nastradamus LP, are you proud of it or are there some things you could’ve done better?
I think it is what it is. I can’t really take nothing back from it. It’s just what I felt like doing at the time. No more, no less. Yeah, I’m proud of it.
Why’d you part ways with your former manager Steve Stoute?
We was just working together, and I was so caught up in work, work, work that I needed a break. So I took my break from the business. Also I wanted to executive produce an album myself.
It seemed like you were trying to make the singles on Nastradamus for commercial success. Like on the “Nastradamus” single, the lyrics were a little more simplistic. Was that intentional?
I didn’t write a lyric down. I just freestyled it. So it was definitely laidback. On “You Owe Me,” I state, “Pay me back like 40 acres to Blacks.” I’m not thinking at the time, “This is a commercial record.” ‘Cause I don’t think in a commercial record you’d be saying, “Pay me back like 40 acres to Blacks.”
There’s an art to it. If you’re great, then you become commercial because you make great music. A lot of great artists, the ones that survive, are the ones that know how to balance it. You want your music to reach everybody. You’re not cutting yourself down at all by doing that. You’re actually becoming a better artist by doing it.