Nasty Nas is still a rebel to America—even at age 38. Divorce, fatherhood, financial drama, rap wars— he's been through it all. And he hasn't sounded this fresh since Illmatic.

This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2012 issue.

It’s Easter weekend and resurrection is in the air. While Christians mark the day God’s son rose from the dead, there is talk of a holographic 2Pac performing at this year’s Coachella. A virtual ’Pac—untouched by age, sweat, contradiction, or gunshots. A soulless facsimile of someone who was once loved and feared: Lazarus and Frankenstein rolled into one. The perfect avatar for so much of modern hip-hop: digitized, lacking in menace.

Nasir Jones, 38, is not a hologram. Leaning in the back of a black Escalade, he’s a living, breathing legend. Unlike ’Pac, Nas still walks amongst us—growing older and wiser, taking missteps, surviving. The recently divorced father of a teenage daughter and a 3-year-old son, he had to pay a grip to his ex—the R&B/rock chick Kelis—just before she gave birth. And just as he had to pay another pound of flesh to the IRS.

When Nas first entered hip-hop’s collective consciousness he was a precocious teenager, wise beyond his years. Now, draped in June Ambrose’s “glamaflague” army jacket decked out with studs, he’s still every bit godbody. He’s in New York putting the finishing touches on his new album, Life Is Good, and shooting the video for his latest single, “The Don.” His demeanor betrays no overt stress or strain. While Rakim spits technique from the car speakers, Nas manages a dust-up at Hot 97 over a missed radio drop; texts a lady friend; glances at a recent picture on his phone of Knight, his 3-year-old, laughing in front of the Giza pyramid.

By the time Nas mounts the small stage at Tammany Hall, it's clear he is performing a resurrection of his own. Super Cat’s badman lilt cuts the air as the video director Aristotle cues the crowd. “I been out rhymin’ since Born Knowledge/Like Prophet Muhammad said/The ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr."

The sound is fresh, dense—the kind of track that producer Salaam Remi prefers. “If I’m going to do hip-hop,” Remi says later, “I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.”

On the whole, Nas' new music cuts against the grain. “I wanted to make a soundtrack that allowed Nas to be Nas,” says No I.D., the renowned rap producer and Def Jam executive who was the other major contributor to the new album. “I don’t have a calculation of what is going on now with the kids, but I just wanted Nas to do what he do.”

 

I'm at a point where everything I record is going to be close to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics.

 

Gossip blogs aside, Nas will not be remembered for his ill-fated marriage or his tax troubles. What he will be remembered for is “snuffing Jesus” in some of his first words as an MC. He will be remembered for the countless jewels—condensed infinities formed around breakbeats—and for unveiling ghetto metaphysics to an uncivilized world. “My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails,” he said in “Memory Lane,” one of his early masterpieces. No, the current incarnation of Nasty Nas is not a comeback. More like evidence of things foreseen.

Life is Good will be your tenth solo album. Is this a watershed moment for you, or just another album?
This is different. The way you work, your approach, is different each time. I’m at a cool, mature, easy place.

You’re one of the few cats who can do gangster and Rasta and still maintain your frame of reference. It 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 with the Marleys. That’s just big boss business. When people put on images—like being a gangster or a street guy—then you’re your own worst enemy. I’m an artist. I like to make the music that I like to make. If not, then you’ll be stuck trying to be a character. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of artists.

You become a caricature of yourself?
As much as the people want you to be a certain way, you can’t suffocate like that. If you do, I hope it pays off for you, by feeding the people what they want, all the time. That’s just not in my DNA.

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