On a chilly autumn evening, Nasir Jones is tucked into the penthouse lounge in the famed Chung King recording studios building. The room is standard studio issue—oversized black leather couches, big-screen TV, dusty ashtrays and dog-eared magazines—except for the view.
Stretching ahead for miles below is Manhattan in all its majestic, glittering glory, and standing tall and defiant is the Empire State building, aglow in red and yellow to commemorate the start of the fall season. It’s a postcard view, an opening-shot-of-a-big-budget-movie view. A publicist in attendance oohs and aahs, but Nas—bundled up in a thick gray hoodie, black bubble vest and jeans—is totally unfazed. The only thing he’s focused on at the moment is finally finishing his highly anticipated Def Jam debut, Hip-Hop Is Dead—that and making sure his wife of nearly two years, R&B fly girl Kelis, has her house keys. He calls her “baby girl”—she calls him “love.” As he exhales smoke from his Cohiba (Nas has cut down on blunts considerably and now enjoys the occasional cigar), she waves it away with a playful “Peee-eww.” They make plans to meet up for a late dinner after his session, and she’s off, keys in hand. Their five-minute interaction will be the most animated that the famously low-key MC will be all night.
Fresh out of Queensbridge projects, Nas catapulted to rap fame with 1994’s Illmatic. At the tender age of 20, he was an introverted brooder who could create vivid urban stories with a sense of wisdom beyond his years, a gifted street poet with a heavy heart. Over a number of lackluster follow-up albums, though, he seemed to fall into a perpetual identity crisis—was he the flashy gangsta don Escobar or the messianic Afrocentric prophet Nastradamus? The sensitive soul of “Project Windows” or the crass playboy of “You Owe Me”? While he alienated early diehards, beefed with his peers and caught loads of critical flack, he remains on most top five (dead or alive) MC lists, 12 years since his brilliant arrival.
Last year, at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena, Nas surprised the hip-hop world when he took the stage with his most prominent antagonist, Jay-Z, for a live version of “Dead Presidents”—nearly five years after Jay’s “Takeover” and Nas’ “Ether” set a new standard for battle rap. In the weeks following the concert, it was announced that Nas had negotiated a joint venture between Sony (parent company of his longtime label, Columbia) and the label Jay-Z had taken over since retiring from recording, Def Jam. The former rivals appeared together on MTV and said the release of Nas’ eighth album was imminent. Originally slated for September ’06, Hip-Hop Is Dead was rap’s most anticipated event of the year. Reports of beats by Dr. Dre, DJ Premier and Kanye West surfaced, as well as a Salaam Remi track titled “Where Y’All At.” But there was no video, no photo shoot, no radio singles. September came and went without a Nas album.
And then Jay-Z came out of retirement.
Fans, critics, bloggers and rappers alike wondered if the rap star–turned–label prez was purposefully undermining Nas’ return to triumph his own. It wasn’t inconceivable, given the complaints voiced by Def Jam artists the Roots and Method Man—who bemoaned the lack of support from their boss on their projects. (Both albums were released with little promotion and suffered miserable sales.) LL Cool J enlisted 50 Cent to spearhead his next project, as a way to distance himself from the label, accusing Jay of only being good at promoting Jay.
But Nas stayed quiet and kept working. Driven by his complicated love of rap and his concern about its future, he scrapped tracks and redid them, hooked up with Snoop, The Game and will.i.am, and recorded the collabo with Jay that everyone’s waiting on. Now in the final stretch, Nas leans back in the cushy studio sofa and relights his stogie. Surprisingly candid throughout the interview, he’ll share his hopes and fears about his return to the spotlight. He’ll discuss the holdup of his album and explain its controversial title, as well as the prospect of the tell-all book penned by the mother of his child, Carmen Bryan—who was once cited by Jay-Z in some very personal diss rhymes. He’ll talk about his relationship with his former rival, expound the benefits of marriage, defend the contradictions he’s been so criticized for, and talk about why sometimes he’d rather go fishing than make records.
So what’s the story behind the delay of the album?
I was overexcited… I wanted it to come out my birthday. I wanted it to come out the day Tupac died. I wanted it to come out Halloween. And then it went to November. Then, ahh… You know, I knew Jay was coming out in November, so it was either I was gonna come the seventh and he rock the end of the month or end the year off. I felt like I wasn’t ready for November, so let’s do December. Two different months.
Do you feel like the hype surrounding Jay’s return takes away from you?
Nah, it was, uhh… It’s not his fault. I was supposed to be ready, but I didn’t feel like releasing it at the time. I didn’t even do a photo shoot. I ain’t do nothing. You know what I’m saying? And he was ready, so he’s coming. I think, one time, we even talked about it. He said people are going to criticize him for coming and shit, and we just laughed about it. You know, Jay is a serious dude. He needs a month to himself, and I need a month to myself. Him coming on time is perfect, and then I come in with the icing on the cake and end the year off. It’s perfect for me. A lot of people were getting it the wrong way, but this actually worked out better for me.
So the song with you and Jay, “Black Republican,” is—
It’s on some rap shit. [Laughs] It’s on some rap shit.
Were you guys in the room together when you did it?
Yeah, heavy. No other way. I was having a slow day in the studio, and he swung by, and it turned into a party. It turned to good times ’cause that was our first moment. It was an easy vibe.
So you guys have recorded together, been seen on double dates together, and you joined him on tour overseas. Are you building a friendship?
It ain’t about trying to build a friendship, because, umm… I don’t think rappers got into it to be friends. We got music to make, history to make and things to do. Honestly, I’d rather just be with K. Her and me, we ride out. Other than that, I got my homies, and I got my comrades. There’s camaraderie in rap, and there’s competition, and there’s history to be made, and [Jay and I] understand that, and that’s what it is. There’s a respect thing between each other.
Speaking of Kelis. Seems like marriage is treating you well. Is it true you two might have your own reality show?
Oh, most definitely a possibility.
You’re not worried about all the other couples that have done reality shows and ended up getting divorced?
I don’t know why other people did it. The reason that it could be possible for me is that I want someone to take all the footage of me, edit it up so I can watch it. I wanna see it. I’ma probably hide once it’s out. It might help me with hanging out, and I think it would be therapeutic and help me start, you know, doing more stuff. I’m not used to the TV shit and all that. I like the arts, but I really don’t like all the craziness from it.
Yeah. I gotta tell you, I read an early copy of your baby mama’s tell-all book.
Ha, ha. Oh really? Shit.
Do you know what it’s about?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve learned not to be surprised by what people do no more.
She implies she sparked the original beef between you and Jay.
She didn’t spark anything. She was an NYC girl running through the streets. We were both young, and whatever she did is her business. I was a young dude in the rap game, and I was running around and didn’t have time for a family. She’s gonna say what she’s going to say about it. I don’t really remember it. I think it’s mean when you do shit just to play somebody, but I don’t know. [Shrugs] I’m cool with whatever she wants to do. She’s lying or maybe she’s not lying—I have no idea. God bless her.
Read the rest of our interview with Nas in XXL’s January/February 2007 issue (#88)