x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The nth degree

Music The title of the ninth album from Nasir "Nas" Jones caused outrage. Angus Batey examines the controversial life of the rap star.

Nas is showing signs of being the first rapper of his generation to back up his lyrics in the public arena.
Nas is showing signs of being the first rapper of his generation to back up his lyrics in the public arena.

Rapper chooses controversial album title; media furore ensues; rapper changes title; album debuts in US charts at number one. It would be easy to dismiss Nas's decision to call his new, ninth, album "N*****" as a sensationalist publicity stunt - particularly given that the record (now released without a title, after major US retail chains said they would refuse to stock it with its original title intact) going straight to number one in the US album chart last week. And certainly, those who queued up to denounce the New York star following his announcement of the album title - from black leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to fellow rappers such as 50 Cent, and conservative political commentators and media figures - seem to have played an important role in giving advance publicity to the record.

Easy, but wrong: and not just because, as he proved last week by backing up his on-record critique of the Rupert Murdoch-owned US TV channel Fox News with a demonstration against the broadcaster, Nas is showing signs of being the first rapper of his generation to really walk the walk his revolutionary talk has long demanded. Since he made his first appearance on record as a guest on an album track by the all-but-forgotten group Main Source in 1992, Nas has been polarising opinion.

A prodigiously talented writer and rapper, in 1994 the then still teenage Nasir Jones released a debut album, Illmatic, which is considered one of the finest releases in rap history. While that record's tales of life on the streets of the Queensbridge housing projects, just across the river from Manhattan, have passed into hip-hop lore, it is on his subsequent records that Nas's complex worldview has been honed.

The rapper first began to generate the controversy that has become as much a defining characteristic as his honeyed lyrical flow with Illmatic's follow-up, It Was Written. Moving away from the hip-hop equivalent of cinema verite, he began to write less from experience and more from imagination. Suddenly, instead of lyrics about shootouts on Queensbridge staircases or the day-to-day struggles of the projects' denizens, he was talking about drug dealers in the Florida Keys, or, on one song, verbalising what it might feel like to be a gun in the hands of a criminal. It didn't all sit well with those fans of his first record who felt he had "gone gangsta" to court sales but, as Nas later told me, it was the making of him.

"I recorded a few songs for my next album after Illmatic and they were grimy, they were hard," he said. "But they leaked onto the radio before they were finished, so I changed them all. Instead I put together an album that represented who I really was, and thank God I did that. I realised the kids were saying 'Give us another Illmatic', but years later I realised that if that had been the next album, I would have been finished. I would have felt like, 'Damn, my body of work only says I'm about gettin' high and shootin' dice and hangin' on the block'."

He released two albums in 1999 - I Am and Nastradamus - which further divided listeners. The former found him jousting with the then commercially dominant Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs on a grandiloquent track, Hate Me Now, which pointed out to his critics that the more they carped, the better his records sold. In the accompanying video, both Nas and Puffy were shown being nailed to crosses: but the controversy such an image was to generate remained parochial (Combs, a Catholic, had second thoughts after filming the video and asked for his "crucifixion" to be removed; Nas's then manager, Steve Stoute, mistakenly sent the earlier edit to MTV, and shortly after it was broadcast, Combs is alleged to have attacked Stoute in his office with a champagne bottle. Stoute's law suit against Combs was settled out of court).

Both records contained superb lyrics and provocative concepts, but were sometimes undone by lacklustre beats. Suggestions that he has a suspect ear when choosing backing tracks have been a constant refrain of Nas's press, but, like many things said about him, a lot of the criticism is bogus. It is often forgotten that Illmatic's backing tracks were the work of some of the most skilled and commercially successful hip-hop producers of their day (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor), and that the tracks they created were cutting-edge for 1994; despite suggestions that he has "sold out" by using the producers or production styles that are in vogue at the time he makes each new album, it is a template that Nas has never deviated from.

Serious concerns about his credibility began to fall away in 2001, following a lengthy on-record war of words with the Brooklyn rap star Jay-Z, and a fifth album, Stillmatic, which dared to evoke his storied debut. Looking back, it seems clear that Nas underwent a subtle but dramatic transformation around this time. His records since have been from a higher plane - more detailed, focused and nuanced, each has provoked and cajoled responses from listeners prepared to pay careful attention to one of hip-hop's most lucid and wordily intense lyrical craftsmen.

Nas has said his new album is the record he feels he has been working towards his whole life, and there have certainly been plenty of antecedents for its strident socio-political approach. Indeed, it is surprising that it has taken so long for right-wing broadcasters to start fulminating at the Queensbridge rapper's impetuosity. His claim on the track Sly Fox that the news network has a racist agenda are surely small beer next to comparing the president with the antichrist. But this is precisely what Nas did four years ago.

On his double-CD Street's Disciple, released ahead of the last presidential election, Nas included a track called American Way. Between choruses on which he duets with the R&B singer Kelis (who Nas married in January 2005), he lays into rappers who, he feels, have become politically outspoken not because they believe in a party or a cause but because it is expedient for their careers; he rubbishes the then active Rock the Vote campaign - an initiative that used rappers and rock stars to encourage young people to register to vote - arguing that, faced with a choice between the incumbent George W Bush or John Kerry, the American people were being asked to choose between "Satan or Satan."

His position on voting has moved on - the untitled album ends with Black President, an endorsement of the hope the potential of a Barack Obama presidency inspires in him, though with important caveats about whether victory will change the Illinois senator's agenda - but maybe, as he hinted in an interview two years ago, this is more a case of the world catching up with Nas, than Nas changing his stance.

"Why hasn't everyone else been makin' moves towards change?" he asked me on the eve of Street's Disciple's release in October 2004, reaching toward a theme that has now begun to dominate his work. "Why hasn't everyone else been making music representing their feelings? I think if we start educating ourselves about politics a little more, we could prevent the Bushes and people like that from even getting into office. Or we could influence the kids of tomorrow, who we know are good people; we could influence those people in our communities to go out and run as candidates, and it would probably slow down the problems that we're havin'."

The other key piece of context for the untitled album was provided by a debate which Nas helped spark. In 2006 he released an album called Hip Hop Is Dead, which challenged the rap community to prove that the music, once synonymous with provocative, sometimes revolutionary political thought, had not degenerated to a pastiche of itself, lost in a welter of fake gangsters, misplaced machismo and commercially contrived subject matter. The album helped fuel a year of introspection which led, among other things, to a movement to expunge the word "nigga" from all rap records. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) even held a mock "funeral" for the word in Detroit last July, taking it to the grave in a horse-drawn hearse. It is clear that many use this word through reflexive laziness, or in the mistaken belief that it makes themselves look tough; but running throughout Nas's new album is an argument that no artist should be prevented from painting with every colour of the spectrum.

Strident and outspoken he may be, but Nas is first and foremost a poet. He knows and understands words and how they work, has strong opinions about their uses and abuses, and knows that, in the right hands, they can be hugely powerful weapons. Yet to see him outside Fox News, speaking to the press, trying to deliver a petition, is to see someone who stands on the threshold of the defining act of their life. With Nas, it's never been about generating controversy to sell records: now, as he reaches a place between art and politics that only a few of his heroes (Public Enemy's Chuck D; Bob Dylan) have ever occupied, it is about talking straight to change lives.