Nas, “Let It Go” (Originally Published January/February 2007)
This 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.
Happily married, at peace with himself, comfortable with his record label, his boss and his release date, Nas is mad at only one thing: hip-hop. In fact, he thinks he might rather be fishing.
WORDS ANDREA DUNCAN-MAO
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 fi ve-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 followup albums, though, he seemed to fall into a perpetual identity crisis—was he the fl ashy 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 tellall 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.
A recurrent criticism that’s been leveled against you is that you’re contradictory. Like, you’ve been the street’s disciple, thug poet, Escobar, been blinged out in the videos with Diddy…
I’m totally contradictory. I was gonna make a song on this album called “Mr. Contradiction.” ’Cause in essence, it means I’m human. There’s not one person in the world that’s not a living, walking contradiction. It’s kind of crazy that people say that. I think they’re being harsh. What they’re trying to say is worse than what the meaning is. They haven’t been anywhere. They haven’t walked in any real shoes. So it’s just naysayers and hecklers... ’Cause James Brown could say, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud,” and then talk about hot pants on another song. Or you know, Marvin could say, “Let’s get it on,” talk about freakish pleasures, whatever you want, but also talk about the world. That makes you a whole. People are so caught up with the gimmick artists, so they believing what’s fake. And really, it’s sad. They’d rather watch the actor who makes every record the same, every image the same, and that’s cool. I don’t get involved with that. Say what you want—I love being a contradiction. I might get that shit tattooed on me. [Laughs]
Explain the thoughts behind the album title, Hip-Hop Is Dead.
Yeah. Hip-hop is dead ’cause America is dead culturally. I’m proud to be an American, no matter what. But American culture is stale, you know what I’m saying? We keep regurgitating the same shit. And it ain’t exciting. I seen it from when I was a kid watching the whole shit. The shit was exciting to me.
Yeah. Hip-hop. The shit was exciting. But it ain’t the ghetto secret no more. Kids everywhere know it. And that’s what we want—we want it be heard. But now it’s really corny. And I still love hip-hop, but it’s like, the way the game is now, it’s like, Fuck rap, get money. I don’t think nobody cares about respect as an artist, because at the end of the day, everybody is just chasing the paper. So fuck it. Hip-hop is dead. Let’s piss on it, bury the shit and get our money. And that’s what I’m about now: Let’s get our paper. Fuck hip-hop.
You don’t really believe that.
No, but I’m mad. Me and hip-hop have a relationship that has nothing to do with no other rapper, no matter where you from or nothing. Every nigga got his own personal relationship with hip-hop, and this is mine. Certain muthafuckas will get mad on some dumb shit, like, Oh, Nas is mad at New York. Nah, E-40 could feel like hip-hop is dead because what he was listening to ain’t cracking no more. Common feel mad ’cause what he was listening to ain’t hot no more. Jeezy might be mad because what he used to love ain’t hot no more. Who knows what anybody feels. This is my feeling. This album is about my feeling. And every nigga can put out their own version of Hip-Hop Is Dead if they want. Or Hip-Hop Is Alive or Hip-Hop Is Committing Suicide— whatever the fuck you want.
It’s interesting, your saying this, because in many ways, you’re an artist’s artist. You never chased the movie deals, the sneaker endorsements, the clothing lines, the power drinks—stuff that everyone else seems to be about.
I think for a long time it felt like… I like to do rap for me. It’s fucked up that I got people listening to me. And then I like it sometimes, ’cause it helps people through some times, and people groove to it, and that’s the best feeling in the world. But it’s like, Another fuckin’ album of Nas? Really?
Why? I done so many fuckin’ albums, it’s like, What the fuck? I almost want to not be signed, so then I can put out music and then it won’t even matter. I’m caught in between two worlds. I wanna do this. I want to do history. I want to do all of these things to inspire the next generation. But there’s a side of me that doesn’t want the attention. And that was a hard part of rocking with Jay. That’s gonna bring too much attention my way. When I’m in New York City, I can just jump in a yellow cab or walk down the street. I want the paper, ’cause with the paper, so much can be done. But with the paper… I don’t want all that attention, and that’s just being real. People can take that however way they want.
So you think you’re under more scrutiny now being associated with Jay? Like you need to roll in a Maybach all day?
That’s the thing. We New York dudes from the ’80s generation. I’ve had everything from the Phantom to the Maybach to the convertible Rolls Royce. That’s Nas. “The World Is Yours.” “Bank rolls, clothes and hoes…” That’s who I’ve always been. I’ve got a lot of jewelry. I brought the bling stuff back since Slick Rick, with the QB chain. That attention is cool—but that and a hot record and a video and a clothes line and whatever that comes with this business? I want all that, but then I don’t. I might be shook at the same time, man. I might be brave and shook at the same time, which kills me. All I want at the end of the day is a cabin, a lake, a small boat, a fishing rod, cigars, lemonade and a deep-fryer pan.
A deep-fryer pan?
Deep-fryer pan ain’t the healthiest thing in the world, but that’s how simple I am at the end of the day. But there’s also a part of me that does the rap stuff. This is what I grew up in. I’m in it. I’m—
I’m Nas. Could you believe that? I’m Nas. Yo, if I wasn’t Nas, I’d jump off of the roof. Who else would I want to be in rap? That’s how I feel at the same time.