Nas: Return of the Don (2012 Cover Story)
Nasty Nas is still a rebel to America—even at age 38. Divorce, fatherhood, financial drama, rap wars— he's been through it all. And he hasn't sounded this fresh since Illmatic.
This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2012 issue.
It’s Easter weekend and resurrection is in the air. While Christians mark the day God’s son rose from the dead, there is talk of a holographic 2Pac performing at this year’s Coachella. A virtual ’Pac—untouched by age, sweat, contradiction, or gunshots. A soulless facsimile of someone who was once loved and feared: Lazarus and Frankenstein rolled into one. The perfect avatar for so much of modern hip-hop: digitized, lacking in menace.
Nasir Jones, 38, is not a hologram. Leaning in the back of a black Escalade, he’s a living, breathing legend. Unlike ’Pac, Nas still walks amongst us—growing older and wiser, taking missteps, surviving. The recently divorced father of a teenage daughter and a 3-year-old son, he had to pay a grip to his ex—the R&B/rock chick Kelis—just before she gave birth. And just as he had to pay another pound of flesh to the IRS.
When Nas first entered hip-hop’s collective consciousness he was a precocious teenager, wise beyond his years. Now, draped in June Ambrose’s “glamaflague” army jacket decked out with studs, he’s still every bit godbody. He’s in New York putting the finishing touches on his new album, Life Is Good, and shooting the video for his latest single, “The Don.” His demeanor betrays no overt stress or strain. While Rakim spits technique from the car speakers, Nas manages a dust-up at Hot 97 over a missed radio drop; texts a lady friend; glances at a recent picture on his phone of Knight, his 3-year-old, laughing in front of the Giza pyramid.
By the time Nas mounts the small stage at Tammany Hall, it's clear he is performing a resurrection of his own. Super Cat’s badman lilt cuts the air as the video director Aristotle cues the crowd. “I been out rhymin’ since Born Knowledge/Like Prophet Muhammad said/The ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr."
The sound is fresh, dense—the kind of track that producer Salaam Remi prefers. “If I’m going to do hip-hop,” Remi says later, “I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.”
On the whole, Nas' new music cuts against the grain. “I wanted to make a soundtrack that allowed Nas to be Nas,” says No I.D., the renowned rap producer and Def Jam executive who was the other major contributor to the new album. “I don’t have a calculation of what is going on now with the kids, but I just wanted Nas to do what he do.”
I'm at a point where everything I record is going to be close to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics.
Gossip blogs aside, Nas will not be remembered for his ill-fated marriage or his tax troubles. What he will be remembered for is “snuffing Jesus” in some of his first words as an MC. He will be remembered for the countless jewels—condensed infinities formed around breakbeats—and for unveiling ghetto metaphysics to an uncivilized world. “My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails,” he said in “Memory Lane,” one of his early masterpieces. No, the current incarnation of Nasty Nas is not a comeback. More like evidence of things foreseen.
Life is Good will be your tenth solo album. Is this a watershed moment for you, or just another album?
This is different. The way you work, your approach, is different each time. I’m at a cool, mature, easy place.
You’re one of the few cats who can do gangster and Rasta and still maintain your frame of reference. It seems contradictory—Rasta and gangster—but is it?
Nah. “The Don” actually came from hanging around Rastas. That’s how we would greet each other when I was with the Marleys. That’s just big boss business. When people put on images—like being a gangster or a street guy—then you’re your own worst enemy. I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make. If not, then you’ll be stuck trying to be a character. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.
You become a caricature of yourself?
As much as the people want you to be a certain way, you can’t suffocate like that. If you do, I hope it pays off for you, by feeding the people what they want, all the time. That’s just not in my DNA.
Starting with “Memory Lane,” a lot of your records had a metaphysical touch. On “The Don” you said, “The ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr.” Where does that come from? And what moves you to write stuff like that now?
I tell aspiring artists: Say what you want to say, and speak what you really feel. If people don’t get it at first, or it seems too heavy for people, that’s just what it is.
I toned it down at times. I started to feel like a nerd when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.
I say to the young: don’t. If you tone it down, still make it come off beautiful. Not everything I did came off beautiful. It came off as if I was trying to relate to people who don’t get me. In order to exist, I felt like I had to tone it down. So for a long time, I did.
I started to feel like a nerd when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.
Was there a moment when you decided, “I don’t have to tone it down anymore”? I remember thinking that after your mom died, you opened up, on God's Son.
Yeah, definitely. That was my reconciliation with God. As a young man who questions everything about life, I thought, “If there’s a God, why are people suffering?” I was extremely rebellious. So when God’s Son came, that was me at the foot of the most high, saying, “I’m your child, and I need You right now. You don’t need me. I need You.” At that point, I started to feel like, “Yo, I don’t care no more,” but even then, I kept it a little toned down. With this album I’m saying what I’ve got to say, and that’s what it is.
“Daughters” was an emotional record. What made you be so honest?
This is the first time I’m dealing with a teenage daughter, and it blows me away. I don’t know that you’re ever prepared to be a parent. Once you become one, that’s your responsibility. It’s more like me talking to myself, about how I could have been there a lot more. I beat myself up for not being the best I could be. I would ask her: “Am I a cool dad?” or “Am I a good dad? Did I fuck up?” And she would say, “Nah, you’re good.” That’s important to me because I started as a teen. I was around 19 when her mother was pregnant. My daughter means a lot to me. It’s just a record that came from the heart.
What’s the most important thing that you want to teach your son about women?
He has to have his own life. My experience could be the wrong thing for his life and what’s ahead of him. A lot of older people are giving the worst advice, based on the problems they had. I’m going to need him to tell me what to do. That’s what I’m looking forward to. If I’m here, we’ll talk. If not, he’s going to figure it out on his own. He’ll take his mother’s words, he’ll take my words, and then there’s the truth. Whatever he feels, he’s got to go with his heart, and be a man in every occasion.
You talked about regrets, and looking back. Do you feel like you were punished for surviving, on some level? Big and ’Pac are untouchable now.
I’m blessed to be here and be able to go into the studio and record another album. If someone has a problem with how I’m doing my thing, how I’m living my life, how they see my legacy, that’s none of my business. How can I be mad, when I still have more to say and the opportunity to make music? That alone—that’s why my life is good.
What’s your relationship with the blogs and Twitter?
I don’t understand how artists get pissed off at people on Twitter. I appreciate a good joke. I mean, who are you? Not to say that people should have the toughest skin, and nothing should bother you... Maybe it’s just my age. I know who I am. I know what I’ve survived, and I know what I’ve done. That shit wasn’t easy. So for someone who doesn’t know anything about that to comment on it, you can’t be mad at them. They don’t know any better.
When you get on a track, do you feel competitive with artists, even if they’re friends?
Nah, never. My thing is to do a great performance, so that the record is great.
Did you feel that Distant Relatives re-energized you, creatively?
Definitely. It was the conversations. It was the music that we were choosing. Those things opened me up. They took me to a different place, and it freed me up from the bullshit. It kept my shit real. That’s how I approach everything now. I don’t waste time entertaining you with a verse. We’re all in the entertainment business, and you have tons of entertainers. I’m in that game, but I’m at a point where everything I record is going to be close to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics. It’s a lot closer to me and how I feel.
There's a record about Kelis on Life Is Good that goes into what made you fall in love with her. How hard was that breakup? What was the feeling when she had your son after you were separated?
There was a point where we were trying to hold onto a relationship that was finished. She was pregnant and in the studio while we were recording Distant Relatives, and he would move when the music would come on. That was a great feeling for me, just to have that feeling of family. It ended around the time the record was being done.
There were times when it didn’t bother me, and there were times when it bothered me a lot. There were times when I was thinking, Damn. I had this shit all planned out, and now I’ve failed. That was hard on me, because I don’t like to fail at anything. Accepting that I failed at this relationship—and it was public—messed me up. You ask yourself, How could that person be so cold? And I’m sure she felt the same way about me. It was ugly.
I saw Kelis as Courtney Love—but I also saw her as a mahogany queen. I saw us as a beautiful thing.
How has your relationship with women changed, now that you’re older and you’ve been divorced?
I’m taken aback by the beauty of women. There was a time when I only saw big breasts and thick asses. Now, I see the beauty in the subtleties. Those are even better than the tits and ass. The aesthetics have changed for me.
She might not be the prettiest, but there’s something special about her—
That makes her pretty. No disrespect to women when I say bad bitch, but my definition of a bad bitch is not always the video vixens. A bad bitch can be a younger woman, in her early 20s, but wise beyond her years. It could be a woman in her late 30s, who’s cool as hell, smart, and has great motherly qualities—or has great motivational skills, or is a powerful mover and shaker in her own career.
Like Michelle Obama is sexy.
Michelle Obama is the most beautiful woman on the planet. She cares about people. All first ladies have their jobs to do, but you can feel her sincerity.
What do you listen to in your private time? Are you a soul head? Do you listen to hip-hop?
I listen to it, when I get in the zone. It gets me in the zone. I’m listening to Frank Sinatra. I’m listening to Isaac Hayes. But then, I just bought Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, and I called Eric B. and asked him questions about it—the recording process and things like that. It’s whatever I feel that day.
What’s different about that era and this era for you? Was the music better?
The music was definitely better. Let’s not even have that argument, because if you compare just a third of the music from that era to half of what’s going on now, there’s no competition. That music wins, hands down.
But that’s what makes hip-hop eternal. It resurrects itself, and it corrects itself.
I don’t have the energy for the women that Wayne fucks in his songs. I need to hear his songs, so I can reminisce like, “Yeah. I was a bad boy back then.” [Laughs.] I don’t have that energy no more.
The title is Life Is Good. Have you gotten to the point where you feel some mastery over your life?
In some ways. In some ways, not yet, but I’m on my way. Financially, there’s plans that I have, that I’m close to accomplishing. The setbacks were my fault. No matter who screwed it up for me, it was my fault for letting them screw my shit up.
What do you mean?
I never liked dealing with money. It comes between real shit. Friendship, loyalty, and love is the real shit. Money is the other shit. I have one way of dealing with money, and then you have educated people, who know how to deal with money, and we have conflicts there. It’s like in the movie Wall Street, my man Gekko says, “Pay attention. Money’s a jealous bitch. Either you’re going to pay attention to her, or she’ll find someone else that will.” And mine has definitely found other people who appreciate her more. [Laughs.] I’ve neglected her and abused her. I let a person take her from me—and I don’t mean my ex-wife, I mean some bad business from, like, six years ago that’s affecting me now. And I take responsibility for it, because it’s my problem. But I still see that as something I have to fix, because if you don’t fix money, it’ll fix your ass.
It’s fucked up when money’s involved in divorce. And I don’t give a fuck. I can’t take it with me, so someone can take the money. Anyone that I’m married to, if I give you my life, I give you my heart, I love you—my money is nothing. You can have it all. It’s just sad that when you’re dealing with love and life and marriage, that marriage is a contract. It’s a business deal. That messes people up.
After you say “I do,” everything changes.
Did you see a problem immediately?
Yeah, but it was a problem I was attracted to. It was rock and roll. I saw Kelis as Courtney Love—but I also saw her as a mahogany queen. I saw us as a beautiful thing. I saw us as inspiration. People weren’t seeing hip-hop artists get married. A lot of people came at me crazy. But I think overall, we were inspiring people to love.
My daughter would be calling me, like, 'Dad, they’re talking about you on the radio.' She wanted to tweet back, and I told her to take the high road. It was ugly.
There was a lot that was thrown at her that she couldn’t handle. Like I was saying earlier, there’s a lot that I could tell my kids, but they’ve got to fish it out for themselves. Every night, she was in bed with Harvard. She was sleeping with Harvard. She had all the answers, but I needed something more from her, that she either wasn’t ready or didn’t know how to provide. Plus, she is younger than me and she hadn’t seen all the things I had seen. She was on her journey, I was on mine. In the beginning, I said, “There’s parts of this that might not work,” but there was a beautiful part of it, too. For the most part, I had a great time being married. It was amazing. She’s an amazing woman.
She never threw daggers at you in the media.
No, she did. Over Twitter, and there were things.
In an article, she said that she wasn’t going to say anything bad about you.
That was later, because the response was not good. There were bad tweets. She was angry. She was lashing out at anyone—and anyone she would lash out at, people automatically thought she was talking about me. My daughter would be calling me, like, “Dad. I’m on my way to school, and they’re talking about you on the radio.” My daughter wanted to tweet back and shit, and I told her to take the high road. It was ugly.
How is it now?
It’s a lot better.
So there are no issues? You see your son as you please?
That side is not great yet, but it’s working toward being that way. She’s a new mom. I’m busy and she’s busy. From what I see, she’s being a good mom, and it’s working toward a great place. There was a time when I couldn’t see him at all. It was terrible when the divorce was fresh.
Did you ever get to a point where you hated her?
No. I got to a point where I was like, “Did she always hate me?” and “Did she ever love me at all?” I’ve got to admit, I did feel like that. But she did love me.
The backlash is because she loved so hard.
Exactly. They wind up taking it out on you. A lot of divorces are bad because a woman is just being vindictive. She’s not after the money, she just wants you to hurt the way she was hurt.
Could you ever see yourself getting married again?
Not right now. I’m enjoying life and looking at each day like, “This is beautiful.” I’m having a good time. I’m not going to bring anybody in to mess that up. You come around looking like you’re going to mess this good time up, you’re out of here—fast. [Laughs.] I’m not sacrificing my happiness for nobody and their drama. No way.
Can you read it quicker?
I see it a mile away.
WATCH NAS' BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (SET DESIGN) Robert Sumrell. (GROOMING) Jap. (CLOTHING) FIRST IMAGE: Shirt by Ralph Lauren / Pants by RRL / All jewelry Nas' own. SECOND IMAGE: Shirt by J. Crew / Shorts by JC Rags / Hat by Yohji Yamamoto. THIRD & FOURTH IMAGE: T-shirt by Calvin Klein / Shorts by Ralph Lauren / Boots by Timberland / Hat by Capas Headwear / Eyewear by June Ambrose Eyewear. FIFTH & COVER IMAGE: Shirt by Woolrich Woolen Mills / Tank by Polo Ralph Lauren / Shorts by Rocawear / Boots by Timberland / Hat by Kangol / All jewelry Nas' own.