Tough issues go beyond words for rapper Nas

Fri Jun 27, 2008 10:29pm EDT
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By Hillary Crosley

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Seated in a quiet corner of New York restaurant the Spotted Pig, Nas is drinking a glass of rose. He's dressed comfortably in jeans, Velcro-fastened sneakers and a white T-shirt featuring the image of a poster from Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's "Thrilla in Manilla" fight. His black Rolls Royce is parked outside and he's awaiting a few cigars from his driver.

In here, the noise surrounding the rapper's new Def Jam album, formerly known as "N--ger," has faded, but Nas is still happy to discuss the grand implications of it all.

Since October, when Nas first announced his intentions for the album title, he has drawn all kinds of responses, ranging from the ire of African-American activist the Rev. Al Sharpton to the support of Def Jam chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid. After certain retail distributors, which neither Def Jam nor Nas would identify, claimed they wouldn't carry an album called "N--ger," Nas rechristened it as an untitled project, starting yet another round of debate on popular hip-hop sites like

As the record nears its July 15 release, Nas is the first to admit he's not a one-man show. Def Jam, a unit of publicly traded company Vivendi, has to market this hot-button album while maintaining its market share, which raises the question: How do a corporation and an artist balance creative integrity with the bottom line?


"If I was the one watching all this s--t happen, I would want to see me ride to the end," says Nas, who promises that he hasn't changed or removed the album's incendiary commentary on race relations. "Except a lot of so-called black leaders were using my album as a platform for themselves. I would have been fighting not to get the 'N--ger' album out but to express myself, and that's not the fight I wanted. This album is about me and how I feel as a black man."

Nas' subject matter is rare for contemporary commercial hip-hop, which sells everything from mobile phones to fast food. The three hip-hop songs atop Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart -- Plies' "Bust It Baby Part 2" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" and "A Milli" -- focus on sex and braggadocio. But Nas says he recorded the album with entertainment as well as education in mind.

"I didn't want to 'n--ger' my audience to death," he says. "So 'Be a N--ger Too,' which I recently released a video for, isn't on the album. It didn't fit. The entire record deals with the concept, but ... I had to pace myself."   Continued...

<p>Rap artist Nas poses backstage at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 10, 2008. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson</p>