In his recent albums, Nas has grown increasingly focused on shoring up the vitality that hip-hop lost when it became a global business, and recovering the memories of the days when hip-hop was synonymous with New York. “The Tunnel was the club for a moment,” he says, referring to the mid-nineties, when the historic nightclub occupied a vast space on Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea. “Whatever song was out at the time, the whole city was part of it. All the movements that were around, from Wu-Tang to Bad Boy—when their records came on from that spot, you’d see that section go crazy. And you’d know those guys were from Staten Island and Wu-Tang fans. Then when the Mobb Deep records came on, you’d see a bunch of dudes going crazy—that’s Queens. You’d see Biggie come on—that’s Brooklyn.”
Nas’s preoccupation with hip-hop history—in one two-and-a-half-minute track from 2006’s eloquent Hip Hop Is Dead, he name-checks 56 largely forgotten rap pioneers—has made him a sometimes awkward fit in today’s sleek industry. In a personality-driven genre, Nas isn’t a personality. His public image is vague; one gets an impression of intelligence and integrity, but nothing specific. He was never the dead-eyed tough who rapped about selling crack—he was the street-smart kid who rapped about friends who sold crack (“Represent”). He’s not a gangster who raps about shooting people—he’s a thug who thanks God people prevented him from doing so (“Get Down”).
But Nas thinks that rappers can get mired in tropes and put-on identities, afraid to change the formula that brought them success. To sell records and remain viable as a business, they highlight one titillating aspect of their personality and paper over the rest. (Think of 50 Cent, who came to notoriety on Tourette’s-style reminders that he’d once been shot nine times.)
“A lot of rappers aren’t really who they say they are,” he says. “It’s a gimmick. Real men have children!” he exclaims in mock incredulity. (Nas has a daughter from a previous relationship.) “We have nieces, nephews, little cousins, little sisters.” In the track “I Can” from 2002’s excellent God’s Son, he cautioned young girls about the dangers of HIV. On “The Cross,” he spits a rhyme that zigs in a direction that’s very familiar to gangster rap—“And I don’t need much but a Dutch / A bitch to fuck / A six, a truck / Some guns to bust”— before zagging: “I wish it was that simple.”
Nas hasn’t just been poetic and self-effacing. In 2001, he and his Brooklyn rival, Jay-Z, engaged in one of the highest-profile rap battles to date. (The rivalry continued, to their mutual benefit, until the end of 2005, after which Nas signed to Def Jam Records, where Jay-Z was then CEO.)
And once on Def Jam, Nas, it seemed, had succumbed to the advice of marketers: He and his wife, the R&B–neo-soul singer Kelis, signed up to make a reality show for MTV. A clip available online previews what might have been if MTV hadn’t pulled the plug: Kelis politely greets a bodyguard on the tour bus—“Hi! How are you? I’m good”—complains about cramps, then sniffs her husband’s armpits. Nas helps someone off-camera find something in a duffel bag.
Nas now realizes it would have been a snooze. “We shot two episodes,” he says, and laughs. “Me and the wife didn’t get excited. MTV agreed with us. I mean, leave the guys who are supposed to be on TV to be on TV.”
Of course, the controversy over his new record’s title almost seems like it was scripted for reality television. Jesse Jackson accused Nas of behaving dishonorably for trafficking in the forbidden, prompting Nas to reply that Jackson had, in effect, called him a nigger by assuming he had nothing substantive to say and was merely scandal-mongering. Al Sharpton said his piece, as did the NAACP, Fox News, and 50 Cent (“That’s a stupid name”). A slew of rappers like Lupe Fiasco, GZA, and Akon came out in support of Nas. His label, Def Jam, did too, for a while. But on May 19 Nas announced that the name had been removed.
The album is now untitled, but bears an image of Nas’s back covered in welts that form the letter N. He’s not surprised by all the free publicity, but he also believes that the fault lines in the black community’s reaction reflect one of the themes he explores on the album: the broken relationship between the older generation of African-Americans, who fought against the word, and the younger one, who use it casually.
“In the black community, the elders and the youth don’t know each other.” The older generation, he says, “made it through the storm [of the civil-rights movement]. We’re still in it.”
When he gets older, Nas says, “I’m never going to turn my back on the younger generation, no matter how crazy and insane they are, and how many drugs they sell. I’m never going to blame them for it. I’m never going to come down on them. I’m never going to talk from a position of superiority. I’m going to have my opinion, but I’m never going to do how the elders do, like they own the civil-rights struggle. Thank God for the people who came before us,” he says, “but they can’t tell me nothing.”