Fighting the Power

Rapper Nas steps back into the ring, fists flying

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To paraphrase LL Cool J, Nas doesn't want people to call his return a comeback, because he's been here for years. But hip-hop addicts don't see things this way and never have.

"Every time I make an album, they're always saying, 'He's coming back,'" grumbles the rapper during a telephone interview to promote his new disc, Stillmatic. "It's always been like that, even when it's something positive -- you know, like they're all happy I'm coming back."

As for Nas, he doesn't exactly seem overjoyed to be answering questions in the glare of a national spotlight that last shone brightly on him in 1999 thanks to a pair of albums -- I Am ... and Nastradamus -- that he issued in quick succession. When he's not snapping impatiently, he's showing that his sizable persecution complex, which seemingly reached its apex with the I Am ... smash "Hate Me Now" ("Well, you hate me, I'm gonna hate you, too/It's as simple as that/Die motherfucker, die motherfucker, die"), hasn't faded appreciably. At one point he says, "It frustrates me when people miss the whole point of what I'm doing and what I've been doing." Moments later, he declares, "Nobody's real, but I'm real. That's what gives me longevity, and that's what a lot of the hip-hop media doesn't understand about me. I'm not into all of that other shit. I'm into what's real."

Neither is he willing to back down. Last year, at a summer concert sponsored by a radio station in New York City, hip-hop titan Jay-Z threw an insult at Nas into one of his songs, inspiring Nas to return the favor. These gibes sparked an old-fashioned battle of the sort that hasn't taken place on this scale since before the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Fortunately, the clash hasn't had such dire consequences. "We all saw and grew from what happened to B.I.G.," Nas says. "So nowadays it just shows that two brothers can argue and not have a fight."

Indeed, the competition has been bloodless, with each combatant using a song as his weapon: Jay-Z fired off "Takeover," featured on 2001's The Blueprint, prompting Nas to counter with a Stillmatic assault dubbed "Ether." No official winner has been declared, but most scenesters believe Jay-Z got the better of the scrap. Whereas most of Nas's insults came across as juvenile (especially homophobic mentions of "Gay-Z" and "Cockafella Records," a reference to the Roc-A-Fella imprint), Jay-Z's were lethal darts aimed directly at his rival's authenticity: "There's only so long fake thugs can pretend/Nigga, you ain't lived it, you witnessed it from your folks' pad."

Further benefiting Jay-Z was his recent run of success (among the longest and most impressive stretches in hip-hop history) and the quality of The Blueprint as a whole; from start to finish, it may be his best disc. Stillmatic, on the other hand, has received mixed reviews. But it's sold more than a million copies in less than three months, and most critics see it as an improvement over I Am ... and Nastradamus, which were regarded in some quarters as overt attempts to make Nas more palatable to a mass audience. For his latest disc, Nas maintains, kowtowing to radio programmers was the last thing on his mind.

"There are thousands of bullshit rap CDs that come out every fucking week," he declares. "So this is me just going, 'Let's make a real hip-hop album, because I don't hear any lately.'

"The stuff I grew up on was the true hip-hop, but now it's a commercial playground," he continues. "I'm not mad about that. It's good that people can make money making music that's fun and good, and it's new -- it's a new style. But I'm still a big, big fan of the music from my day -- music from the golden era that I grew up listening to in the '80s."

Born Nasir Jones in 1973, Nas has an excellent musical pedigree: His father is Olu Dara, an avant-garde jazz trumpeter who's put out a couple of charming, wonderfully eclectic solo albums, including 1998's In the World: From Natchez to New York, on which Nas has a cameo. But he hardly grew up in comfort, having spent his formative years living in a New York-area housing project. Nas dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and in 1991, at age 18, he made his first commercial recording, slinging rhymes on "Live at the Barbeque," a cut on the 1991 platter Breaking Atoms by the Main Source, a hip-hop trio featuring Large Professor, who'd go on to produce some of Nas's finest tracks. Afterward, 3rd Bass's MC Serch recruited him to contribute to the soundtrack for the 1992 film Zebrahead, further lifting his profile and bringing him to the attention of Columbia Records. Two years later, the label put out Illmatic, which is among the top hip-hop debuts ever -- a group of unexpectedly jazzy ghetto anthems such as "N.Y. State of Mind" and "The World Is Yours" that Nas delivered with jaw-slackening authority and skill.

Following up such a strong disc wasn't easy, but Nas did a more-than-credible job with 1996's It Was Written, a strong collection that even spawned a hit single, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," featuring the dulcet tones of future Grammy darling Lauryn Hill. Flush with success, Nas next jumped into the Firm, a hip-hop supergroup supervised by production mastermind Dr. Dre that sported contributions from AZ, Foxy Brown and plenty of other name talents. Those involved were apparently unaware that there had been another Firm during the mid-'80s -- an all-star rock conglomeration led by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Bad Company's Paul Rodgers that brought shame upon all involved. As it turned out, 1997's The Firm: The Album had the same effect on its participants -- particularly Nas, who reimagined himself as Nas Escobar, a smooth felon from the Godfather school of organized crime who wasn't nearly as interesting as the man himself.

Contrary to the view of rap revisionists, neither I Am ... nor Nastradamus is a disaster; each has its share of worthy songs. But the albums suffer from being too messianic and from a certain failure of imagination epitomized by "Hate Me Now." The tune got oodles of press when its co-star, the ubiquitous Sean "Puff Daddy" (or is it "P. Diddy"?) Combs, demonstrated how upset he was at being shown nailed to a cross in the "Hate Me Now" video by assaulting a record-company exec. But despite its notoriety, the number was crass and stupid, bringing out the worst in Nas.

The title of Stillmatic can be read as defensive; it may be Nas's way of insisting that he's still as good as he was during his Illmatic days. But the cover photo, which pictures him as an old-school B-boy, suggests a return to his roots, and so does the presence of two Large Professor-helmed offerings, "You're Da Man" and "Rewind." The lyrics of the latter are also a good sign, in that they're structured in an ambitious manner: The action takes place in reverse chronological order ("The bullet goes back in the gun/The bullet hole's closin' this chest of a nigga/Now he's back to square one"). The method can't help but recall the movie Memento, but Nas hasn't seen the flick. "I came up with that on my own," he says.

The most intricate effort, though, is the CD's closer, "What Goes Around," which finds Nas turning his verbal guns on elements of society that he sees as exterminating his people, including "radio and TV poison" and "white Jesus poison."

"There's a lot of lies capping into the media and through the TV," he says. "There's a lot of lies even in religion if you really go back to what's happened through years and years and years. Now it's more of a mind game. I don't think there's a lot of pure people who really love God. I don't think Jesus was a Christian, and I don't think Jesus was white.

"I won't say that they're lying intentionally," he goes on. "They're just representing for who they see him as. But it's still poison. You don't know certain things aren't good for you until you wind up dead, you know what I'm saying? And some people don't know that you need to look at things from more than one angle."

He advises U.S. citizens to take this same approach to their president, whom he name-checks near the conclusion of "What Goes Around": "George Bush killer till George Bush kills me." In a post-Sept. 11 world, such comments probably make suits at major labels nervous, but Nas says no one at Columbia has tried to muzzle him.

"They didn't do that, because it was just me having my freedom of speech," he says, "and, really, me voicing my opinions about [Bush's] being a murderer. If I feel like he's a murderer, he's a murderer, and he needs to talk to the common people and give us some understanding on why there's so much murder and death -- with him frying people in Texas up to slaughtering people in Third World or foreign countries over things that aren't clear to us over here."

This comment implies that Nas isn't convinced that terrorists directed from Afghanistan were responsible for the September terrorist attacks. But when invited to elaborate, he takes a half-step backward: "In a nutshell, I just think that there's a whole lot going on that the American public doesn't even understand, isn't ready to understand and has no idea about." He adds, "I think people want to know the truth, but everybody's scared of total reality. If we really had an idea of what's going on in this world, well, phew -- you know?"

Nas is just as dodgy when it comes to explaining the allusions he's made about possibly retiring from the hip-hop game. He says he'll likely quit "soon" because "I did what I did. I feel that I've grown as a human, and rap is just one of the things I want to do now. I want to make room for a lot of other things, too."

Does that mean he's ready to announce that he's made his last comeback? The answer Nas gives is elegant in its simplicity. "No," he says. And he doesn't say anything more.

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