Nas: Return of the Don (2012 Cover Story)

Nas: Return of the Don (2012 Cover Story)Interview by Rob Mariott (@tafari); Photography by Kareem Black (@kareemblack); Styling by June Ambrose; Additional Credits.

Starting with “Memory Lane,” a lot of your records had a metaphysical touch. On “The Don” you said, “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?
I tell aspiring artists: 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 toned it down at times. I started to feel like a nerd when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.

I 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 relate to people who don’t get me. In order to exist, I felt like I had to tone it down. So for a long time, I did.

 

I started to feel like a nerd when I was a young dude, and that wasn’t what I wanted to get across. I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake, because I toned it down a lot.

 

Was there a moment when you decided, “I don’t have to tone it down anymore”? I remember thinking that after your mom died, you opened up, on God's Son.
Yeah, definitely. That was my reconciliation with God. As a young man who questions everything about life, I thought, “If there’s a God, why are people suffering?” I was extremely rebellious. So when God’s Son came, that was me at the foot of the most high, saying, “I’m your child, and I need You right now. You don’t need me. I need You.” At that point, I started to feel like, “Yo, I don’t care no more,” but even then, I kept it a little toned down. With this album I’m saying what I’ve got to say, and that’s what it is.

“Daughters” was an emotional record. What made you be so honest?
This is the first time I’m dealing with a teenage daughter, and it blows me away. I don’t know that you’re ever prepared to be a parent. Once you become one, that’s your responsibility. It’s more like me talking to myself, about how I could have been there a lot more. I beat myself up for not being the best I could be. I would ask her: “Am I a cool dad?” or “Am I a good dad? Did I fuck up?” And she would say, “Nah, you’re good.” That’s important to me because I started as a teen. I was around 19 when her mother was pregnant. My daughter means a lot to me. It’s just a record that came from the heart.

What’s the most important thing that you want to teach your son about women?
He has to have his own life. My experience could be the wrong thing for his life and what’s ahead of him. A lot of older people are giving the worst advice, based on the problems they had. I’m going to need him to tell me what to do. That’s what I’m looking forward to. If I’m here, we’ll talk. If not, he’s going to figure it out on his own. He’ll take his mother’s words, he’ll take my words, and then there’s the truth. Whatever he feels, he’s got to go with his heart, and be a man in every occasion.

You talked about regrets, and looking back. Do you feel like you were punished for surviving, on some level? Big and ’Pac are untouchable now.
I’m blessed to be here and be able to go into the studio and record another album. If someone has a problem with how I’m doing my thing, how I’m living my life, how they see my legacy, that’s none of my business. How can I be mad, when I still have more to say and the opportunity to make music? That alone—that’s why my life is good.

What’s your relationship with the blogs and Twitter?
I don’t understand how artists get pissed off at people on Twitter. I appreciate a good joke. I mean, who are you? Not to say that people should have the toughest skin, and nothing should bother you... Maybe it’s just my age. I know who I am. I know what I’ve survived, and I know what I’ve done. That shit wasn’t easy. So for someone who doesn’t know anything about that to comment on it, you can’t be mad at them. They don’t know any better.

When you get on a track, do you feel competitive with artists, even if they’re friends?
Nah, never. My thing is to do a great performance, so that the record is great.

Did you feel that Distant Relatives re-energized you, creatively?
Definitely. It was the conversations. It was the music that we were choosing. Those things opened me up. They took me to a different place, and it freed me up from the bullshit. It kept my shit real. That’s how I approach everything now. I don’t waste time entertaining you with a verse. We’re all in the entertainment business, and you have tons of entertainers. I’m in that game, but I’m at a point where everything I record is going to be close to my life—not just rhyming acrobatics. It’s a lot closer to me and how I feel.

Tags: nas, complex-cover-stories
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