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.


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.


Where are you tryna take the Braveheart’s?
Where they wanna go is just to make music. They’re concerned about business, about entrepreneurship, about making money. Their focus is on what you hear on everyday radio, to the clubs, to politics, whatever we sit back and talk about. We might sit back and talk about Bush’s inauguration and how it’s gonna affect America. Like, what’s going on? Is he Satan? And their whole thing is the only way a Black man can make it in this world is to be strong and brave to the core.

Is there any pressure on Jungle to live up to his big brother?
Jungle don’t even give a fuck about being rated on a level of mine. He knows he’s not on my level. He can’t do what I do and I can’t do what he does. We both bring our own thing to the table for different reasons. A lot of dudes that I had down with me before, they got caught up in tryna outdo me. It’s a competitive thing, you supposed to try to outdo everybody. But it was too similar and they really couldn’t develop their own style. Jungle’ll say wild shit just in regular conversation and do wild shit in life and say shit in his rhymes that I wouldn’t state.

Has he always expressed an interest in rhyming?
I kinda forced him. When I was young, I always made him listen to my shit, wake him up in the morning so he could hear my shit. “How this sound? How that sound?” He was my first critic with everything. Then he was managing Noreaga and Nature for a minute. I never used to listen to him when he used to come around freestyling and shit. It sounded like he was buggin’ out, but it’s a method to his madness. He put a lot of good ideas out in the game. Now he came up with this “Oochie Wally” shit, so I’m like, “Aight. He got a crazy imagination already.”

Do you feel the Braveheart’s project is more natural than the Firm’s?
The Firm was natural. We was trend setting. Me and Biggie was on some gangsta shit, so New York was really struggling to get in the game ‘til Big passed. What we were doing was la familia and that was the first time niggas was hearing that shit. The first time niggas ever seeing Nas and Dr. Dre right after he left Death Row. That was the first time an East Coast premier artist had worked with a West Coast artist in that turbulent time. It meant a lot to me and Dre to just squash the beef with that. That was all love.

What’s up with Nature? He was supposed to be the first artist on Ill Will Records and now it’s like he doing his own thing. You wasn’t even in his video.
In the beginning I brung Nature to come spit on Clue? tapes. I love to help niggas get into the game. Somebody helped me in the game, so that’s what I do all day, and, if you follow my career, that’s all I ever done, with AZ and whoever. So I just brought Nature in and what happened was I went away. And Tone and Poke, crazy asses, signed the nigga to Trackmasters when I was away. I came back, I’m like, “What the fuck?” But I can’t be nobody’s babysitter. If niggas ain’t feeling what I’m doing, then fuck it. Do your thing. I ain’t gonna hold you back or nothing like. When it’s funny shit involved, that’s one thing I don’t do—tolerate nonsense and bullshit.

Now you say you’re not the best, but a lot of people put you in that category. Do you feel pressure to achieve because some of your peers are doing so well?
Hell yeah, all these niggas I hear push me to want to do it. But overall, that’s not my whole motive for making albums. I make albums because I like being creative and it ain’t got nothing to do with any other artists. I’m just trying to do my best. I’m not trying to win your awards or claiming to be nothing. Shit, in my rhymes, I’ma spit all kinds of things at you, but the reality is all music. I appreciate the people that fuck with my shit, because I put honesty in my shit. I don’t lie about court cases and drug wars. I’m not gonna spit it in my rhymes and then I don’t have no criminal cases on my rap sheet. See, we lived it, we lived and came out of the streets. A lot of niggas’ whole rhymes be about Ki’s, but at the end of the day, it’s like, come on.

Do you feel that because your rhymes are so intelligent and you’re such a soft-spoken person, people tend to sleep on your gangsta?
Yeah, a lot of people take kindness for weakness. That’s something you can’t avoid, but it don’t matter.

Back home they’re dying to know, what’s up with young Roc-A-Fella coming at you?
When you become a major figure in this business and niggas is saying you’re the best, you’re always gonna be in the ring. I’ve been in the ring with just about everybody. It used to be, “Who’s better, Nas or Buckshot?” I’ve been compared to Lord Finesse, Big L, Raekwon and Biggie. Me and Biggie had a big competition going on that people don’t know about.

Do you see young cats like Beanie and Memphis Bleek getting at you on the radio as fair competition?
This how I told niggas: If it’s meant to be settled, if it’s meant to bring out some good music, then we’ll do it. But as far as fucking with me, I don’t see it realistically. And I’m talking about anybody. That’s how I feel about my shit. What I write is what I’ve done. I don’t rhyme like these other niggas. My albums are about integrity, not about gimmicks. I’ve had shit to say about certain rappers in my shit and they’ve had indirect shit to say about me, but that’s as far as it go. I’m not thinking about them. If niggas don’t like me, then fuck it. I ain’t here for niggas to like me.

You know, Memph was saying that I went at him indirectly on “Nastradamus.” When I first heard that, I just laughed. Why would I do that? That’ll mean I was dick ridin’. Niggas sayin’ shit like that means that they’re overwhelmed by my shit. They paying too much attention to me. They sittin’ home with their crew thinking about me. That means that every time I come out with an album, they gonna rush and buy it to see if I’m dissin’ them.
When I first came into this game you had to have talent and that’s the way I’ma continue to keep it. You gotta have talent. You can’t just be yelling shit, thinking you killing shit. Now I respect it on some competitive shit, but, if you really taking that shit seriously, then you playing yourself. But if they want to, it’s all good. I’m here for that, too.

What’s your relationship with Jay-Z like right now?
We’re cool. That’s what I was just talking about. It ain’t me hyping it, it ain’t him, it’s the streets. And his crew had to step up.


Why’d you feel it was necessary to address this on [NYC radio station] Hot 97 last week?
To let muthafuckas know this shit is serious. Don’t have no clowns coming at me. And don’t have no fake niggas coming at me. I ain’t lying. Niggas could pull up my criminal rap sheet and see what’s there. A lot of rappers claim they this and that, and ain’t have no prior arrest. And on my beats talking about, “No, turn that shit off, it’s wack.” The game is crazy and I’m here to stay. And a lot of muthafuckas is mad at that. A lot of muthafuckas might as well chip they tooth. I ain’t thinking about dudes, I’m thinking about what I got to do. You look at the muthafuckin’ CNN everyday and see my name Nas, or Dow Jones. Put it together you see my name, Nasir Jones. I’m everywhere and I have a purpose here and gonna bring it to reality. Muthafuckas better listen if they wanna hear about rulership and how to maneuver in this game and be somebody that appeals to the masses, not just ‘cause I got on big ass chains. Listen to some real shit, a nigga that dodged bullets, a nigga that could send them back.

You talking about going at cats, like you and Biggie had some real tension back in the days. But did the competition strain y’all’s relationship? I heard y’all wasn’t talking at one point.
Yeah, Biggie... it’s the game and it’s love at the end of it. We respected each other. Niggas couldn’t even get in the game ‘cause we was killing it, so it’s just love. There was tension, a little, but the night he died, God bless him, we was suppose to meet. We had a party in Beverly Hills, me and Steve Stoute. We was going to meet him, but I just felt so funny in the air that night out in Cali. We was out riding the drop-top Porsches. My man was like, “Yo, put your hat on, put the vest on. This shit is funky out here for real.” So Big was on his way, but we never got a chance to meet and talk.

Same thing with ‘Pac. We was supposed to meet up at Vegas. We had just met up at MTV, talked about taking my name out of Makaveli. We were brothers. We built years ago and we said that we was always supposed to keep it real with each other. It got twisted out of nowhere, God bless that nigga. I called Jimmy Iovine and I was like, “Yo, what’s up? Where we gonna do this meeting at in Vegas?” And I was like, damn. I was one of the first New Yorkers to find out that he was shot and had a 50-50 chance to live. It was just ill, we was supposed to meet and he died on my birthday. Those was real deep times for me. I don’t never wanna cross that line again. I never want for us to get that bad, where brothers is killing brothers. [‘Pac and Biggie] are examples. Those are my Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther Kings right there.

When was the first time you and ‘Pac hooked up after you heard “Against All Odds”?
This was MTV Music Awards, like ‘96, ‘97. Suge Knight and them niggas was seventy deep, we was seventy deep. This was in New York. Them niggas was here running shit, Snoop, all of them, and we came through. There was no other rivals they had there. We was the only ones there. So we stepped to him, and me and ‘Pac had a good conversation. A lot of people thought it was gonna jump off worse than what it did, but it didn’t. I really wish that we could’ve formed that alliance and really deaded that.

Why you not fucking with Willie Esco no more?
Well, I wanted to do the clothes line originally called Esco. I found out some other guys tried to jump on the bandwagon and [already had the copyright]. We talked about building the company together and then, later, the dude that was designing it was into some ego shit. We had a lot of disagreements. The style of clothes he was doing is not ghetto fabulous. It’s not what our youth is trying to feel. I never did business like that, so I decided to leave. I didn’t publicize it. I ain’t tell my fans that I don’t fuck with it no more, but now I’m letting them know ‘cause I’m doing my own thing. I’m a stylish dressed muthafucka, so I’ma put something out there that accommodates my style.

On a closing note, since it ain’t all about just rap competition, what’s the biggest thing you try to get across to your fans?
I don’t know, man. You figure it out for me.

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