DAY TWO: THE Q&A
Life Is Good will be your 10th solo album. Is this a watershed moment for you, or is it just another album?
Yeah, this is different. The way you work, your approach, it’s different each time. So now, I’m definitely at a cool, mature, easy place.
Like Jordan, in his latter days, where it was just the essential moves.
You’re coming off of Distant Relatives. You’re one of the few cats that I know that can do gangster and Rasta, can hang out with both, and still kind of maintain your frame of reference. How do you negotiate that line? It’s like, the Nas problem, actually. It almost seems contradictory—Rasta and gangster—but is it?
Nah. “The Don” actually came from hanging around Rastas. That’s how we would greet each other when I was around the Marleys. That’s just big boss business. From the Rasta culture is where I started saying “don” recently. But nah, I feel like it shouldn’t just be a Nas thing. It should be that everybody who does music should feel free to do whatever they like to do.
With me, I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make... If not, then you’ll be stuck making-believe to be a character, instead of being you. And I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.
When people put on images or they stick with one thing that they’re promoting, like just being a gangster or just being a street guy, then you’re really limited to what you can be doing. You’re your own worst enemy, because you feel like you can’t do music that you like to do.
With me, I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make. You don’t think about it like, “I’m doing this one day, then I’m doing that.” You’re doing you. So there’s different layers to what you do, and you have to explore those different layers. If not, then you’ll be stuck making-believe to be a character, instead of being you. And I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.
Yeah. You become a caricature of yourself.
Well, you really start to sell an image that died a long time ago, because you didn’t grow, instead of being real. When I think about that, I say, “Damn. Am I more musical than most of my peers? Is my love for music and my affinity for it way bigger than my peers’? Is that the case?” I question myself, when I don’t see more people doing more with their music.
When I first heard about Distant Relatives, I was very excited about it. And I thought about a lot of arguments I would have with die-hard Nas fans. Did you feel that pressure, when you were making that move and starting to open up into that other realm?
Not really, because there is artists that came before me that people didn’t understand or who people thought should be what they wanted them to be. I call them fantagers. That’s just what it is, but I’m not the first. If I was the first one to have different points of views and want to share that with people and music and catch criticism for it, then I would be feeling myself like I’m...
The end-all be-all.
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s not the case. There’s tons of artists before me to do that. The thing about it is that as much as the people want you to be a certain way, you can’t suffocate like that. If you suffocate like that, then I hope it pays off for you, by feeding the people what they want, all the time. That’s just not in my DNA. I’m just someone who’s enjoying the journey of life, and I’m having a good time doing what I do.
When you did “Memory Lane” you were 16 or 17, and it’s like, how are you going that deep? You were so precocious, you spoke like an elder. Now that you are an elder in the game—a veteran—do you feel like a circle has been completed at this point? Like when I listen to “The Don,” it smells and tastes like when I was first hearing you on those first three or four records. I think of “Ghetto Prisoners” when I hear “The Don.” All of those records had this real metaphysical touch.
Like, on this last one, “The ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr.” Where does that come from? And what moves you to write stuff like that now?
Well, I would say to the young aspiring artists who are just starting, and the novices of rap: say what you want to say, and speak what you really feel. If people don’t get it at first, or it seems too heavy for people, that’s just what it is. I ran into it, where I, at times, toned it down. I started to tone it down, throughout my career.
I would say to the young: If you tone it down, still make it come off beautiful. Not everything I did came off beautiful. It came off as if I was trying to still be relatable to some people who don’t really get me.
When you go from those words in, “True in the game as long as blood is blue in my veins...” I wanted to tone it down, because the things that were really selling and winning...I started to feel like kind of a nerd, when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across to people. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.
I would say to the young: don’t. If you tone it down, still make it come off beautiful. Not everything I did came off beautiful. It came off as if I was trying to still be relatable to some people who don’t really get me, because I saw the bigger picture. And in order to exist, I felt like I had to tone it down. So for a long time, I did.