Nas, “Grown Man Talk” (Originally Published 2004)
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.”
“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?’” ´