Rapper Nas on Dylan, Jazz and Why He Changed
The Title of His Controversial New Album
July 11, 2008
The rapper Nas got people talking about his new album months before its release by announcing it would be titled with a racial epithet. However, he eventually backed away from the plan after some major retailers said they wouldn’t stock an album bearing the n-word; it will be released without a title Tuesday.
Born Nasir Jones, the New York rapper cemented his place in the genre with a widely hailed debut album, “Illmatic,” released in 1994 when Nas was 20 years old. Since then he has increasingly positioned himself as a musical commentator. For instance, his previous album, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” took issue with the state of rap music. We spoke to Nas about Billy Joel, jazz music and why he changed the name of his album.
WSJ: You dropped the name for the new album because big retailers wouldn’t carry it. Isn’t that something you could’ve predicted from the start?
Nas: Yeah. But I just wanted to see how far I could go with it. People didn’t know about the limits. Even rap artists didn’t know about how far they could go. So many of them don’t try and they stay in the safe box. Because of the heat coming down on me I saw it becoming a circus. I told myself that if it came to that point that I would make the change, because there’s a message in that, too.
WSJ: Do you think the response would have been the same if the title ended with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘er’?
Nas: There’s a big difference. But I think it would have been the same because of the time period, the Don Imus thing and the NAACP and a lot of other people coming down on the “n-word.”
WSJ: On the album you address race, politics and other big themes. What do you hope listeners will take away from it?
Nas: At the end of the day you should be able to go pick up a Lil Wayne album and a Nas album and not get the same thing on both. Rap should be like other music where it’s not all the same content. I’m just giving people a different thing.
WSJ: Your father, Olu Dara, is a jazz musician. What have you borrowed from jazz?
Nas: Jazz has a feeling to it that pushes me. I can hear the tempo and I can hear flows that I want to produce. It gives me direction for what I want to do with my words.
WSJ: A lot of your peers have tried to branch out from music as entrepreneurs and by endorsing brands. Why have you avoided that?
Nas: I love the music. I don’t feel like doing anything else. I really like to wake up and look at the sky through the nice window where I live and know that the music and the people made this possible. There’s no better joy. Anything I do on the side will be very low-key.
WSJ: You’re one of just a handful of people who’ve had a long career in hip-hop. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Nas: Hopefully I’ll still be doing what I’m doing. When I watch Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, I see myself headed down their path. These guys have been around for decades and they still love it. I would look to them. Hip-hop is still young but we’re going to see it grow older. We’re going to be going to Snoop Dogg concerts in the meadow.
WSJ: Speaking of those guys, on the song “Heroes” you say, “Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel they can’t sing what’s in their soul.” Are you claiming there’s a double standard?
Nas: When I look back at a group like Public Enemy, people thought they were gangsta rap before that term was even used. They were looked down on. There were no Grammy nominations. They got no love because of the fear. Now hip-hop has busted down the door and it’s everywhere, but there’s still hidden fear.