2008 interview: Untitled but not undone for Nas

Nas backed down on the controversial title of his new album, but the rapper is standing by its messages on tour.

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Entertainer Nas performs in the infield before the 139th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course on May 17.

Photo: Nick Wass, Associated Press

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No regrets.

That was the clear message from Nas last week, when the A-list rapper talked by phone from his native New York the day after a buzzed-about TV appearance on Letterman and the afternoon before Barack Obama's acceptance speech in Denver. It was a happy day for him, in other words.

"It's the greatest show on earth, this election," he said.

Not too many people were happy with Nas, though, when word got out that he wanted to use the N-word as the title of his new album. A concept record about the history and lingering scars of racism in the United States, it wasn't just another case of a rapper using the word gratuitously. Still, he endured negative comments from all sides, including the Fox News crew -- the target of one song on the album -- the NAACP and both the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Nas eventually relented, and the official title when it came out July 8 was "Untitled." The CD's cover art, however, leaves little doubt what it's supposed to be called: It features Nas' back, covered in whip scars shaped like the letter N.

Two months later, with a little hindsight, the real-life Nasir Jones, 34, believes everything turned out for the best.

"I look at it like people finally got past the first part, the title," he said. "The title was just offending everybody, and they forgot that this is music, and music is a great outlet for people. [Changing] the title helped them get past it, and they've moved on to what I'm talking about."

What he's talking about is essentially a broader and more ambitious extension of what he riffed on when he was 20 and put out his landmark 1994 debut, "Illmatic" -- his experiences as an African-American man in a country that he believes unjustly treats African-American men.

The songs on "Untitled" range from burning attacks on racism past and present, such as "N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)" and "America," to a few lighter-hearted but still barbed tracks, including "Fried Chicken," a duet with Busta Rhymes that plays on stereotypes.

The track that's probably attracting the most attention, for obvious reasons, is the closing track: "Black President," written while Obama was still just in the running for the nomination. "I'm thinking I can trust this brother," Nas says in the song. "But when he's elected, will he keep it real? Every innocent n----- in jail gets out on appeal?"

Hours before Obama's speech, Nas sounded more hopeful about his potential.

"Once he gets in there, there are things he can teach all of us," he said. "Even people like myself who are saying things like, 'I need you to do this, and I need you to do this.' I've got a long list of stuff as an African-American that he should do. I expect him to do a lot of things, but at the same time, I expect to learn a lot from him, no matter what he does."

The other new song that's making waves is the snarling first single, "Hero." It paints a picture of rappers being modern-day slaves to corporate record companies who don't want them to speak out on social/racial issues: "If Nas can't say it, think about these talented kids with new ideas being told what they can and can't spit."

Nas' record company, Universal/Def Jam, probably has no complaints. "Untitled" shot to the top of the Billboard chart in its first week and sold an impressive 186,600 copies. Its success, however, lent ammunition to the argument that Nas wanted the original title simply as a publicity stunt to drum up album sales. His previous CD, "Hip-Hop Is Dead" (another attention-grabbing title/concept), sold relatively poorly despite strong reviews.

Nas laughed at the idea it was all a publicity stunt.

"When I named the album 'N-----,' I knew that I'd be taking away a lot of my sales in the white community and in the black community, too," he said. "I have black parents that come up to me saying they're afraid for their kids to hear it."

And anyway, he said, how could he manufacture the real- life experiences that inspired the album/title? Among them is the 2007 arrest of his wife, R&B singer Kelis (Milkshake), for allegedly disrupting an undercover prostitution sting and then resisting arrest in Miami.

"I'm actually really black," he said. "I'm actually really going on trial in Miami for racist police and racial profiling, the way they treat us. I actually love who my people are. It's all real.

"I really grew up in the Queensbridge projects. I really grew up around drugs. I've seen my brothers go on trial. My whole family was in a struggle, 24/7, 365 days a year. It's all real ladies and gentlemen. It's not makeup I'm wearing, I'm really black. I'm really talking about what I should be talking about as a 30-year-old African-American husband and father."

Remembering 'Illmatic'

Nas' ability to channel his real-life struggles in music is what set him apart when "Illmatic" came out.

At the time, New York rap had devolved from sociopolitical pioneers like Public Enemy and KRS-One to the more social-life-oriented stylings of Diddy's Bad Boy empire or the gangsta-isms of West Coast acts. Coming from the Queensbridge Houses on Long Island -- notoriously the largest urban housing project in the country -- Nas did not glorify but rather painted a gritty, realistic picture of inner-city life.

"It was a great era," he said. "[I was] a guy who didn't know anything about the music business, a guy who didn't know anything about where it would take me. Just a kid talking about his life. That has some of the rawest moments, because I wasn't jaded about anything in the music industry."

Many critics have suggested that the rapper has failed to live up to that album's promise, but he said, "Going back to what's on that album would be more like living down. It would be going backwards."

With his proclivity for controversy, though, Nas hasn't had any trouble staying relevant. His last album, "Hip-Hop Is Dead," stirred up nearly as much debate as the new one with its epitaph treatment of rap music. He still stands by it, too.

"Yeah, it's dead, man," he said. "It's good that it's dead because that makes everybody swing at it real hard to try to get a home run out of it. People are working even harder at what they do to keep it alive, because nobody wants to see that it's dead."

The rapper took "Hip-Hop Is Dead" a step further on tour, performing in front of a coffin and tombstone while seemingly undermining the message with his lively performances. (His concert at Myth in Maplewood was hands-down the best local rap show of last year.)

Likewise, he plans to further explain and accentuate the messages from "Untitled" on his tour coming to First Avenue tonight.

"I didn't give them enough," he said of the album. "I just put it out there, and I'm speaking to the streets through my music. I just left it kind of hanging, so maybe I need to get out there and talk more, to be at some of these conventions and be around for the talking. I need to get my point across more."

So does that mean he's inviting Republican convention-goers to stay for his concert?

"I wouldn't mind that at all," he said, laughing. "Come hear what these rappers got to say."

"People go, 'Oh, these rappers, they're gangstas and in gangs. They're mean and violent and say such foul language about women. Oh God, stop it!' But then when we do something else, something more serious -- like I have with this album -- they don't respect that, either."

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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