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 nahright.com.
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.”
Throughout the album, Nas finds creative ways to address his subject. On the Busta Rhymes-featuring “Fried Chicken,” Nas uses a woman as a metaphor for soul food and black people’s attraction to deadly eating habits. (“Mrs. Fried Chicken/fly vixen/give me heart disease but still I need you in my kitchen,” he raps.)
First single “Hero,” featuring Keri Hilson, boasts anthemic synthesizers, a tuba, running keys and a swelling chorus as Nas explains why he changed the album title. Key lyric: “I’m hog-tied on the corporate side blocking y’all from going in stores and buying it/at first L.A. and Doug Morris was riding with it/but Newsweek articles startled bigwigs and asked Nas, why is you trying it?”
Newly minted Def Jam executive vice president Shakir Stewart says that while the company wholeheartedly supports Nas’ creative vision, all parties understand the business implications of the original album name.
“Nas would not jeopardize his opportunity to get his music to the public,” Stewart says. “He understands that we believe in intelligent freedom of speech, meaning whatever stance you take, be prepared for some accountability.”
Stewart admits that distributors were the reason behind the album’s title change but adds that Def Jam will not shy away from any future controversial singles or corresponding clips like the Nas-funded video for “Be a N—ger Too,” which ends with a young black man hanged from a tree.
“Nas is a visionary,” Stewart says. “Singles are a collective decision, and it’s about picking the best music that demonstrates the album.”
But on the marketing side, Def Jam senior VP of marketing Chris Atlas and marketing director Shari Bryant say the untitled project has been surprisingly easy to pitch.
“The funny thing is, we really thought the album was going to be a big issue,” Bryant says. “We thought we’d just have to focus on the Nas brand. But when the title changed, the doors opened again.”
Nas, meanwhile, has broken his tradition of sidestepping brand partnerships and brokered a one-year partnership with athletic apparel company Fila.
“My best friend Will and I loved Fila,” Nas says. “It represented prestige and everything that was cool to us. When Will passed, we buried him in a black Fila sweat suit, so doing a deal with them has a lot of significance for me.”
According to Fila president John Epstein, it was a natural match. “One of my executives spotted Nas shopping in our Manhattan store and struck up a conversation with him,” Epstein says. “Nas isn’t interested in selling out. He’s interested in being true, and that fits with our brand.”
Some may view Epstein as brave to co-brand his company with an MC who has pledged to examine America’s racial struggles.
“I had some trepidation, and then I started talking to 16- to 20-year-old kids in focus groups,” Epstein says. “They looked at me like I was crazy for not understanding his message of positive change. Nas is relevant to his followers, and I don’t have to understand it as long as they do.”
Back at the Spotted Pig, Nas has lit one of the cigars and is musing that he doesn’t need to market himself like other artists. Perhaps his Muhammad Ali T-shirt boasting the phrase “The Greatest,” or that rose, is getting the rapper riled up. Or maybe after more than a decade in hip-hop, he’s just being honest.
“From Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Kanye (West), I’ve been around longer than all of them, and I don’t need any of their marketing,” Nas says. “The people are my marketing, and that puts me in a class by myself.”