It is a summer family outing, hip-hop-style: two hulking SUVs and two sedans with blacked-out windows are rumbling deep in the woods of Hard Labor Creek State Park in rural Rutledge, Georgia, about 50 miles outside Atlanta. One SUV, a Porsche Cayenne, carries R&B superstar Kelis, who is sporting a striped Dolce & Gabbana bathing suit and a black Gucci fanny pack. The other car, a rust-colored Cadillac Escalade, holds hip-hop icon Nas, dressed more simply but equally stylishly in a white T-shirt bearing the image of Bob Marley, white baggy cargo pants, white shell-toe Adidas, and a green Celtics cap tilted rakishly to the side.
Nas and Kelis have been dating for two years, and among the Vibe set they are a power couple akin to Bill and Hillary. But on a sweltering August afternoon where the thermometer inside Nas’s Escalade indicates that the outside temperature is 100 degrees, they (almost) blend in with the camping and barbecuing masses.
The afternoon fishing and boating jaunt is an escape in every sense of the word: Nas is supposed to be in an Atlanta recording studio putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming eighth album, Street’s Disciple, a project much anticipated after Nas’s unusually strong late-2002 release, God’s Son. But Nas can’t resist the pull of his music, which in some ways has become as family-friendly as this fishing trip: Street’s Disciple boasts not only the first-ever vocal guest spot from his father (jazz trumpeter and storied sideman Olu Dara) but also music from Dara’s bandmates. As a new song called “Get Up” plays on the Escalade’s CD player, Nas says over the post-bop din, “There are some cats on there who play with my dad.” He turns the volume down. “The new record has a jazz vibe; it’s about that era when Low End Theory came out,” he says of the totemic 1991 A Tribe Called Quest record that featured legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. Nas switches to another song, which begins with stomping Delta blues then segues into a walloping hip-hop beat, bluesy harmonica playing still intact. Again, Dara’s influence—he was born in Natchez, Mississippi—is unmistakable.
“I have to go back to what makes me Nas. It’s political rhymes, philosophical rhymes—but raw, street, vulgar.”
Nas’s debut release, Illmatic, offered up a truly new style of rhyming, one dense with detail about street life but abstract enough that his songs had an almost literary sensibility. Illmatic was crowned a hip-hop classic upon its release in 1994, and the record is so beloved among hip-hop fans that Sony (Nas’s label) recently released a tenth-anniversary edition.
Nas says that Street’s Disciple will shun the more “conscious”—i.e., politically minded—raps of God’s Son and instead return to the morally ambiguous roots of Illmatic. “I don’t want people to start talking conscious as a gimmick, so as a leader, I have to go back to what makes me Nas,” he explains. “It’s political rhymes, philosophical rhymes, rhymes that are somewhat prophetic. But it was raw, it was street, and it was vulgar, and that’s what this new album represents.”
Nas isn’t quite as proficient when it comes to fishing—not this afternoon, anyway. Even with three lines cast, the fish aren’t biting. The sun is becoming more intense, the buzz of mosquitoes more insistent. “I forgot the Off!,” says Kelis, swatting in the air. “I think they’re coming for me.” The lines are pulled up, and we begin the long row back to shore. As the rowboat pulls up to the dock, Nas’s friend Kevin, who has been waiting with the SUVs, asks, “You got any bites on the line?” Nas smiles widely. “Nah, man, the lines were biting on me.”
Street’s Disciple. Sony; September 14.