‘Top five’ MC debates have been taking place around the world for decades, and you’ll be hard-pushed to find many that fail to mention rap’s original verbal assassin, Nas. A staple in hip-hop ever since the release of his genre-defining 1994 debut album ‘Illmatic’, he’s achieved impressive longevity through the release of several classic albums that present him as a poet and rap scholar.
Continuing to build upon his already concrete legacy as one of rap’s foremost wordsmiths, Nas returned with his 13th studio album, ‘King’s Disease’, earlier this year. The follow-up to 2018’s Kanye West-produced ‘Nasir’ was a royal return to form for the Queensbridge rapper: backed by producer-of-the-moment Hit-Boy’s intoxicating sonics, the record sees Nas deliver an acutely perceptive and culturally relevant missive stuffed with the kind of lyrical proficiency that demands high levels of dissection.
In a rare interview, we caught up with Nas on a Zoom call from the US to talk about his new album, the fight to eradicate racism, Nipsey Hussle’s plans for a Nas documentary and the possibility of reuniting with Jay-Z on a new track.
‘King’s Disease’ is a very complex album with a lot for the listener to digest…
“I wanted to put together a bunch of music that represents Nasir in 2020. Me and [rapper and producer] Hit-Boy started working on it before COVID hit but then the quarantine stopped us and I decided I didn’t wanna release it anymore. But then I got the call from him and he woke me up, telling me that we gotta finish it. So it’s just a piece of work around what I was thinking this year.”
There’s a moment where you refer to King’s Disease as “rich man disease” – have you ever suffered from believing your own hype?
“I wanna say probably, because everybody gets caught up for at least five minutes in their life, where you’re just in love with the moment that you’re in. The moment of achievement, the moment of success, you know? But I’m not the guy that dwells on anything that’s not feeding me either. So I can’t say that I’ve let anything get the best of me, but I’m human. So perhaps maybe somewhere down the line I have, yeah.”
Do you remember how you pulled yourself out of it?
“I never took myself serious, like where I lived in this stage name in my daily life. I think people can easily get caught up in that, and actors too. They can get caught up in the character. As people, we sometimes just get caught up, but I was always careful about that and always fearful of it.”
The album’s lead single, ‘Ultra Black’, is a beautiful celebration of Black excellence. Sadly, there are still white people in the world who think that being pro-Black means being anti-white…
“I think people don’t realise there’s a reason for records like James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’. They weren’t recorded because everything was OK and we wanted to say, ‘Hey man, I’m better than you white people.’ The reason for them is the foot on our necks. We’re in a world right now where we’re facing some really terrible racist practices and there are people who don’t realise it’s happening. So these records were made to remind us that we are God’s creation just like every white man, every Asian brother, and everyone else.
“We’re trying to tell you that we’ve been told that we’re nothing so much that we’re breaking down the ignorance. We’re breaking down the hatred, we’re breaking down the lies. We’re removing the chokehold of systemic racism from our throats. Systemic racism kills our spirit. It kills our drive. It kills our souls. It kills our dreams and it kills our body with bullets, you know, by the people that were supposed to protect us. So ‘Ultra Black’ represents love.”
With so much depth and knowledge on the track, were you surprised at how much attention the Doja Cat line [“We going Ultra Black / Unapologetically Black / The opposite of Doja Cat”] received?
“Well, I’ve been away, so, of course, I mention someone’s name that’s popular and people are gonna talk about it. I hear people do it all the time but no one makes a big deal of it. Maybe it’s because I don’t put out records a lot, so they’re like, ‘Whoa!’
“I don’t really know the world that these stars live in anymore. I’m rapping the same way I did when I was on the block, but now there’s a new world and what I say can take off with social media and I can’t do anything about it.”
At various points throughout the album you share your opinion on rap today, describing some of it as “weird” and highlighting those who choose clout over quality. Do you see this as a continuation of the views you expressed on your 2006 album ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’?
“With ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ it was a whole different time, but it’s definitely connected to what I was saying about rap being all about clout and stuff. But today’s game doesn’t faze me; it’s different. I’m in a different place. I have a different job when it comes to making music. It’s strange because I’m the same me, but I’m older. So there’s different ways of going about things and different things that I care about. But the clout thing stands out because it’s show business.
“It’s Muhammad Ali when he’s mouthing off, which changed boxing and made him more entertaining. It’s 2Pac when he was going wild on people, which creates entertainment. So I get that part of it, but I don’t care for it when it’s only that. When it’s only clout. When there’s no real purpose behind the record other than trying to get streams. I wish artists would try not to do so much clout because the people notice it and it’s corny. But at the same time, who am I to say anything? Everybody carry on.”
On ‘Full Circle’, you reunite your hip-hop group The Firm. However, Nature, who stepped in for Cormega for the group’s only studio record, 1997’s ‘The Album’, wasn’t included – did you have a conversation with him about getting involved?
“No. This was all about the original guys because we never got a chance to see what the album would have sounded like. Nature got the chance to do a whole album. He got a chance to work with [Dr.] Dre. I brought him in there. I was trying to make him the next guy. It wasn’t so much of him replacing Mega; it was more me reaching out to people who I thought had talent and who I wanted to put in the game. Mega never got that chance.
“But when I spoke to Cormega it wasn’t just about a song; it was about, ‘How are you doing? How have you been?’ We really could have done a lot of things through the years, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. But now here we are, ‘Full Circle’: myself, Foxy Brown, AZ, Cormega and Dr. Dre at the end.”
A few months back you posted a pic of you and Nipsey Hussle to celebrate what would have been his 35th birthday. You captioned it: “We had plans my brother.” What were you guys talking about doing?
“It was more to do with business and investment business. One thing he wanted to talk to me about was putting together a documentary on ‘I Am’ [the 1999 album that was originally intended as a live album]. Once it got bootlegged, I didn’t even want to hear it again. I didn’t want to hear those songs again. I was just upset, you know? Nipsey was really serious about doing a documentary about it and he was working on it. Not as far as like gathering footage, but I gave him my blessing to do it.”
Speaking of great artists, on ‘The Cure’ you say you’d take John Lennon over Paul McCartney. why?
“Well, first of all, Paul McCartney is one of the most incredible artists who has ever walked the earth in my eyes; The Beatles are incredible. But I love Lennon’s solo journey because he dedicated his life to breaking down all the systemic bullshit in the world that he saw.
“The line before was, ‘The markets see you as a old-ass artist’, and so I wanted to reference people who were hot before I was born as a nod to the timeless music and art that continues to impact the world. Paul McCartney is still with us and he’s a bad motherfucker. John Lennon didn’t live this long, unfortunately, but some would consider him greater than most artists.”
Elsewhere on ‘King’s Disease’, you talk about the term “Peace King” and how it took off once you used it on 2001’s ‘The Flyest’. We recently lost Chadwick Boseman, who many referred to as ‘King’ because of his role in ‘Black Panther’. Did you ever meet him?
“Yeah, I met him. He was such a great talent and such a humble spirit and just a good guy. I remember before Black Panther came out he was trying really hard to get a screening for me. He was like, ‘You gotta see this.’ He felt like this was a movie that was made for me. So we shared that type of energy towards each other. It’s sad to see people like him go because he left us with a lot of great work that we can all grow from. But I wish, of course, that he was still here to do more.”
You were good friends with Amy Winehouse. You recorded a couple of records together – 2012’s ‘Cherry Wine’ and 2011’s ‘Like Smoke’ – but were there any more planned?
“We discussed a song for her next album, which was a ‘Me & Mr. Jones’ part two in a way. I forget the name, but it was something like ‘The Fuckery’. But yeah, we talked about doing another song together and just working together. More than anything, we just talked and joked around. We shared the same birthday and we liked the same type of humour. She had jokes so we’d just sit there and joke on the phone for hours.”
Last year, New York rapper Dave East told NME about a Timbaland beat he has with a Jay-Z verse on it. He said he wants to get you on it alongside him and Jay . Has he asked you about it?
“He told me about it. I was just waiting on a phone call.”
So you’re open to the idea?
“Yeah. I haven’t heard the song yet, but all East has to do is tell me when it’s a go, and if it’s a go I’m there.”
You recently revealed that you and Biggie were supposed to do a few records together, but you were too high to finish them. You mentioned one was ‘Gimme The Loot’. Can you remember the others?
“Yeah, there was a song that had him and Busta Rhymes on it. It’s out somewhere, I just don’t know the name of it. I was supposed to be on that one, but we kept missing each other at the studio. We talked about other songs too.”
Do you regret not being able to finish them?
“Hell yeah. I wish I had one with him. I always thought we would have had one. I can’t believe it. Gone too soon, man.”
Tremaine Brown Jr. portrayed a younger version of you in the 2017 film Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about New York rapper Roxanne Shante. Are there plans for you to produce your own biopic?
“There’s been talk about me doing my life story, like a TV series. [Producer] Brian Grazer called me into his office years ago to discuss doing something like that. I think it’ll happen if it’s supposed to happen, and when it’s time. It could be too soon right now, I don’t know. But it has to feel right. It has to come together in a way that makes me go: ’This will make a difference. This will be what I think it should be. I don’t wanna just do it just to see my life story. It has to be right.”
Nas’ ‘King’s Disease’ is out now on all streaming platforms. The CD version arrives November 13 followed by the vinyl on November 23.