[Click here to view a slideshow of Stephen Zook’s exclusive interview with Nas, along with a slideshow.]
New York rapper Nas has never shied away from controversy in his almost two-decade career.
Even so, the artist, whose real name is Nasir Jones, has little patience for controversy for the sake of selling albums.
“If you’re just faking the funk, if you’re just starting trouble with people just for attention and you got no goal, it’s going to end before it started,” Nas said. “People will catch onto it.”
Nas’ latest untitled album has stirred up plenty of its own trouble. Nas originally called the album N—-r, but left it untitled after criticism around the title. Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP both criticized Nas for the album title, while some artists, including Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Common, supported it.
Nas said he eventually changed the title because he didn’t want the negativity to overwhelm his album’s content.
“I don’t like to feel that somebody is trying to pick out one thing about me and make it negative,” Nas said. “Unfortunately, you have a lot of people who are threatened by people like me, whether they rap or not. I don’t give them any power by saying I’m just selling the n—-r word.”
“If the title isn’t there, the album cover becomes even more powerful,” Nas said, referring to the untitled album’s cover. The cover shows Nas shirtless with flagellation scars in the shape of an “N” on his back.
The counter-culture music Nas makes goes along with his life story. He grew up in the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, N.Y. After dropping out of middle school, Nas educated himself, studying ancient religious texts and early hip-hop music. The irony of college students paying to see a middle-school dropout is not lost on Nas.
“You wonder what your teachers would say now,” Nas said. “You wonder what people — ‘cause they saw me on the corner — I wonder what they think now.”
Even so, Nas said he still appreciates the value of education and hopes to complete his own some day.
“In education, there’s a lot that’s wrong with the way the system works, but at the same time, it’s very important,” Nas said.
“This is a whole new world for me,” he said when asked what he would study. “Literature is one [major]. And of course, history. I like to think of myself as a historian.”
Nas’ interests show through in his music as well. His songs deal with issues in hip hop music, race relations and other controversial topics.
“The stuff that I listen to the most is not the most radio played,” Nas said. “Radio is important too, but you can’t let everything be about the radio. I like to make music where I’m not always working for the charts.”
“I still do have fun, even though it comes out serious,” he added. “The records that I tend to keep on the album are the ones that are not much about fun.”
Even though his music deals with heavy topics, Nas said the music doesn’t have to be contemplative.
“You can be flying down the highway doing 90 [mph], listening to something like ‘Testify.’ It’s all about how you are feeling.”
Stephen Zook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.