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The Semantics of Nas

So he couldn’t get away with calling his album by the N-word. But this hip-hop historian is still in the hot seat.


Nas photographed at Siren Studios in Hollywood, CA.   

It’s Friday at four in the afternoon, and Nas, eyes half-lidded, is trying to remember the names of the producers who provided the beats on his new record. He’s slouched in a chair behind the mixing board at Electric Lady studio on West 8th Street. Green pellets of weed are scattered on a cabinet behind him. A big guy named Zaire, a childhood friend, is on a couch in the corner, dozing, with his arms folded across his chest. Colored waveforms scroll across an engineer’s laptop, and the day’s work leaks out in tinny miniature from his headphones.

He’s got one: “Stic.maaaan,” Nas says in a reverential drawl, referring to one-half of the hip-hop group Dead Prez. “I’ve always been a fan of their work,” he starts, but then trails off and rests his head in his hands, thinking.

He turns to his assistant. “Yo, who’s on the album?”

His assistant obliges.

That these producers don’t spring to Nas’s lips is, perhaps, not surprising: He has made his reputation not on hook-laden pop-rap and club bangers, but on hip-hop that sounds best in headphones, in which it’s possible to keep up with the flow of his detailed, controlled verses. He consciously chooses beats that are light on hooks, he says, so as not to distract from the lyrics. It’s a move that has brought him criticism—the weak-beats gripe—but while his beat selection has kept him from the top of the pop charts, it has also protected him from its whims. The rapper has enjoyed an unusually long career.

To say that Nas’s new album is one of the most anticipated of the summer is true, but it misses the point—every Nas album is highly anticipated, because no rapper is held to as high a standard. When a Nas record is about to drop, hip-hop fans cross their fingers and wonder: Will he change hip-hop forever, again? Will the new record be as good as Illmatic?

Released in 1994, when Nas was 20, Illmatic was a prodigious debut. No other rap debut, and few rap albums at all, are as lauded. It’s hard to quantify the album’s achievement precisely, except to say that rapping is a craft, and Nas was the first to discover how to do it right. Rap has two components—beats and rhymes. On Illmatic, the beats were mostly good, sometimes great; and there had been virtuoso emcees before Nas who’d moved the stylized rhythms of early groups like N.W.A toward the conversational. But no one had ever sounded as natural as Nas. “One Love,” which takes the form of a monologue to an incarcerated friend, exploits poetic devices like enjambment so subtly that it works as prose. Every rapper who hopes to be taken seriously—from Kanye West to the Game—must grapple with Nas’s discovery.

Discoveries only occur once. Still, with every new album, fans begin to fantasize about another Illmatic, and anticipation has run particularly high since last December, when it was revealed that Nas had decided to title his record Nigger. Not N, or Nigga, but the epithet in full. Giving an album a controversial title is a familiar buzz generator, but it seems to have worked: The outcry he’s ginned up is the stuff that blogs are made for, and even observers who didn’t know Nas from Nelly found themselves in possession of fervently held opinions. The album, which like most hip-hop releases has been delayed a half-dozen times (another surefire trick), is now set to drop July 15.

Nas wheels his chair over to the cabinet and sprinkles some weed into the paper cradled between two fingers. A yellow legal pad, across which are written lyrics for the new album, lies nearby. His script is whorled and glyphic, and is mostly uncorrected. “I think about what I want it to sound like,” he says. “No words come to mind really. I used to be the kind of guy that took notes in my head or my pager. But I kind of just wing it now. I like to be surprised by what comes out.”

He licks the glue strip and sparks up a tidy joint.

When he was young, he says, he used to take a tape recorder out into the hallway of the Queensbridge projects and rhyme over it to pass the time. “I’d just freestyle and have fun,” he says. “And if it made enough sense, I could play it to a group of people and they’d like it.”

Back then, rap was still largely confined to certain New York neighborhoods like Queensbridge. It was a tight community, and rap was a game. “Everybody who was doing music back then,” he says, “just wanted to keep on doing music, making beats, trying to make records. Anybody would hook up with anybody else.” That openness led Nas to reach out to a producer called Large Professor who, though still in high school, was no less legendary for it: He’d already provided beats for Eric B. & Rakim, the duo who released a string of immortal records beginning in 1986. These days, of course, a figure like Large Professor wouldn’t even reply to an e-mail from an unsigned youngster, much less provide him with three classic beats for his debut.

But times were different. “It didn’t matter that Large Professor had a record out and I didn’t,” Nas says. “Didn’t matter who it was, as long as you were working. He didn’t even know me, but he came down [to the studio] anyway. He was probably just bored that day. But I got in there and did my thing.”

Nas made such an impression on the Professor that he was introduced to Eric B. & Rakim—“the kings of the world,” as Nas remembers. He soon got to know other star producers, and when the time came to make Illmatic, Nas did something that hadn’t been done before: Instead of relying on just one production team, he hand-picked multiple producers. It’s a practice that is now de rigueur in mainstream rap. (This assembly-line approach is not necessarily good for the art; it’s the only ambiguous component of Illmatic’s legacy.)

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