The veteran rapper Nas, who released his 10th album, Life Is Good, this week, spoke to weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about the breakup of his marriage to singer Kelis, parenting, his writing process and his search for inner peace. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
GUY RAZ: I want to start by asking about the cover of this new record — you're wearing a white suit and there's a green wedding dress draped across your lap. What is the story of that picture?
NAS: I had a pretty public divorce. They're not easy — divorces — and it took me a long time to really get through. The album cover gives you that; it gives you what's been happening with me, what's been happening during my break from solo albums. I bring you up to speed with where I'm at. And there it is — actually not her entire dress because it probably would not have fit in the picture because it was so big but it was part of her dress, the part that she had left behind.
There is a theme reappearing throughout this album — it's about finding peace, inner peace. Of course this record was written with the backdrop of the crumbling of your marriage. What other things were happening in your life at this time?
Yeah, a lot, man. I had been through, of course, the divorce and I had been hit with some taxes that really showed me to be careful who's working with you and your money, and you have to be the one that is responsible for your money — you can't trust anyone and I did and I ran into a problem. A couple other things — trying to regroup, trying to figure out where I was going to live and being a single dude again. But I was good; I was good through all of these things. I'm not trying to make a pity party for me; I'm just simply stating what was happening.
I'm wondering why you decided to open up so much about your personal life on this record. You exposed yourself in ways that you haven't in the past.
In the past I had to deal with issues that hit me as a younger man. As a man who wasn't married who didn't really have the experience that I have now. Today I'm a different guy. Obviously, I'm older. I've been through a lot more. The strongest subject matter that I was writing about was more about me and growing up.
If every rap album is about how you came up in the hood and how you had to make it out of the hood — I'm 38 now; this is my 10th album. I wouldn't want to hear someone be around for a long time talking about the same thing. I want to get to know this person; I want to hear the artist. I want to hear them give me something that I can relate to, other than the fact that everything's about bragging. So today, if I made an album just to sell you a story about how I'm the man, it really doesn't show any human side to me. It's good to talk about what's real and what's relevant.
I read that you spent a lot of time listening to a record by Marvin Gaye, a seminal record, Here, My Dear, which is about the breakup of his marriage.
Yes, I'm a big fan of Marvin, and I guess about 12 years ago I heard this album, Here, My Dear. And I thought it was crazy that entertainers — it's hard to find that woman because there's so many women being thrown at us and there's that trust thing there, and of course we're artists and we need someone with compatible wit and finding that is not always easy.
Marvin was married to Berry Gordy's sister. She was older than him and she was sophisticated, she was fly. She had the diamonds, the pearls. She knew how to live and she taught him how to live. She was his love and it ended and he chose to do an album about that when other styles of music were becoming popular at the time. He could have took advantage of the new style of music that was hitting. Instead, what he had to do — he had his tax problems, all kinds of things — what he needed to do was give this record to her, the money from the record. But most of all, he turned the record into a record about her. I didn't want to do that. He inspired me, so I wanted to do it my way.
You have a song called "Daughters" and it's about something that actually happened. Your daughter posted a photo on a social media site and there was a box of condoms in the background. You wrote a song about this. What was happening at the time and how were you feeling when all of that came out?
I felt like I wasn't there enough. I felt like she is putting on an act to make it seem like she's hip. She's home doing these things and talking like she's out in the world and the streets and making moves — she's home tweeting these things. So, I saw that she needed some attention, and I felt like, "What kind of crappy dad am I that I didn't get to her beforehand?" Things like that really bother me and it bothered her mom, which is strange that when I put out the record "Daughters" and I say "Man, I should have drove her to school more; I should have been there more." I'm talking about myself, too. I wasn't the best, and her mom publicly talked out against it. I wrote a song about it to handle it.
You have a line there: "God gets us back. He makes us have precious little girls." It's almost like a self-deprecating line. It's kind of like, "Who am I to cast the first stone?"
Right. And it's also saying I know the world she's growing up in. I was a kid, too, and at some point I knew a lot of women. When you're a teenager, you want to meet a lot of girls — you want to get the most girls. You don't know anything about respect; you don't know anything about being faithful and loyal to your girlfriend. You just want to be a player. So I know what's out there. I know what she's going to run into. Look at this: the guy who thought he was Casanova, he has a daughter, who has to deal with the Casanovas out there.
You have a song on this record with the late Amy Winehouse. You collaborated with her in the past, and a lot has been written about her since her passing. What do you want people to know about her that hasn't been written about as much?
Amy was raw. Amy would tell you to your face whatever she felt, anytime, anywhere. Amy was about the music. Amy, who sold tons of records, was the biggest thing in the world and was turning down business opportunities left and right. She really just wanted to live her life and she had a lot of troubles, a lot of demons. We all do.
That song is about that elusive thing which is finding the perfect person, the perfect partner — something that has eluded you as well.
Well, I thought that I found one, and I don't know, bro. I'm messed up out here, man. I got the opportunity to meet people all over the world. Brilliant women, tall women, short women, slim women, thick women, you name it. But, I don't meet them. I have the opportunities to and it's a little bit — I'm a little shy, so I don't meet them and I don't know who's right for me. I looked at people like Harry Belafonte — he's been married like three times; Richard Pryor — he's been married like five times. So many affluent men are faced with finding love problems. I'm sure beautiful, affluent women are faced with the same things sometimes. Halle Berry can't seem to get a break, you know what I'm saying? So, it's just something that I don't know if we'll ever figure out. I hope I do while I'm here.
I want to ask you about the arc of your career. Your first record, Illmatic, wasn't just acclaimed by rap critics but is now widely considered to be one of the all-time greatest records of any genre ever made. What did you want to say through your words at that time?
I wanted to say what wasn't being said. I wanted to give people a real story. I wanted people to know people like me exist in the world. The big stars in rap, they were too big, so when my rap generation started, it was about bringing you inside my apartment. It wasn't about being a rap star; it was about anything other than.
I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like. What the cops talk like, walk like, think like. What crackheads do — I wanted you to smell it, feel it. It was important to me that I told the story that way because I thought that it wouldn't be told if I didn't tell it. I thought this was a great point in time in the 1990s in [New York City] that needed to be documented and my life needed to be told.
Were you surprised at how that record was received? Do you ever go back and listen to Illmatic?
I go back and I say, "I was really young to be thinking like this. I was in the storm." I realized the reality for that kid — he didn't want to accept it, that reality. He told you about his reality, but at the same time he wanted more from life. He didn't know if he would live to see it but he knew there was more to life. I look at that kid, and I'm like, "Thank you. Thank you for doing what you did."
When did you sit down and put pen to paper and just start writing your ideas down?
Maybe around 9, 10.
Was that unusual? Did anybody in your family sort of say, "Oh there's Nasir again, sitting in his room writing words down?"
Yeah, all the time. I used to keep a dictionary and work with it and then I realized there are more words that exist in the English language than there are in this dictionary. I need a bigger dictionary. Why? How come they don't have every word? And then I was like, "Wait, it's impossible for one book to have every word." So that means you have to buy multiple dictionaries. I fell in love with words and I think that made my mom smile. I think that was cool for her.
When you sit down to think about rhyme schemes, how do you construct them?
I want to sound like an instrument. I want my voice and my words to marry the beat. I go with the rhythm of it and the words start to come to my mind and those words could be based on things that's been on my mind for the past year, the past month, the past week, whatever, I write it. And they just come. It comes to me.
There's a song on this record called "Reach Out" with Mary J. Blige. There's a lyric in there where you say, "When you're too hood to be in the Hollywood circles, you're too rich to be in the hood that birthed you." That struck me because I thought, "Man, it's almost like you don't really have a home anywhere."
Right, it's like, where do I go? What's a cool place for me? What's a safe spot? I didn't know the things I needed to be prepared for before arriving here, so now that I'm here, what do I do? If I can't be in the streets and I'm not Hollywood people, you know what I mean?
So, what do you do?
I do what I do. I just chill. I'm able to be in both circles, actually.
There's a whole website that I know you're aware of which is all about parsing hip-hop lyrics, and do you ever go on there and see how people interpret what you've written?
I think we're talking about Rap Genius. Yeah, I go on there and it's cool because it's a website that's just totally about lyrics and that is something that's real cool for kids all over. I went on there to see how people are interpreting the stuff I'm saying. People give me a better understanding on things that I said, or a different way to look at it. I'm glad that website exists so I can correct them about things because it helps them understand exactly what I mean.
I want to ask about the last track on this record, "Bye Baby." We hear you talking about all of the good that came from your marriage with Kelis, and one of the last lines is: "Watch me do it again. It's a beautiful life." What is that thing that you'll do again?
Get married at some point. At some point I'll do it again. It'd be great. I want to be better at it. I want to be the best at it. I want to have fun. It's a beautiful life. You learn, you win, you lose, but you get up.
I just wanted to make that one real record about that situation. I'm hearing artists, men, famous guys, cry when they heard that song and it just blows me away. For one, it means I nailed it and to me that is the greatest feeling of achievement. You don't want to disappoint. Especially someone like me who's been out of music for years and hasn't had an album in like, four years. I don't want to disappoint — that's a nightmare to me. So when I hear people love it or like it or even cry to it, it just says "Wow, I did something right. I got it; I got it done. I'm not falling off." That song, I had to. It was to me the most important record on the album.
You've written about people you've known who've died and people who haven't made it out of Queensbridge — and you did. You didn't just make it out; you became one of the greatest living rappers in the world. Could you ever have imagined that?
No. I imagined that people would think I was good. That was, by the way, that would be my goal just for people to say, "Nas is really dope. Nas is a dope rapper." I didn't see myself doing this many albums because the guys before me, they maxed out at like four albums and those were the greatest. They were before me and I looked up to them so I felt like if I could get one great album then my name would be out there a little bit amongst the greats. To see what's happened now to me, it's awesome, man. Yeah, it's awesome.
Where do you think the hip-hop world is right now?
Hip-hop is such an amazing thing that kids still want to do it. They're not saying, "Ugh, that's the old people's music." No, they're younger than they've ever been that want to get into hip-hop music. That means the music is still doing something to them in a major, major way. I think more people want to be rappers than anything else.
What about where it's going? We're talking now about something that's been around 40 years. We're talking one of the most important forms of American expression, cultural expression. Something that in 100 years, we'll look back on the way we look back on like jazz right now. What's the next turn in hip-hop?
Well, I don't know yet. That is a great question. I have no idea right now. I used to know, but now what's interesting is just the fact that my passion for it is still so good. I've been doing it since I was 16 — being on a record. My first record — it was 1991. I was 16 years old. My first album came out when I was 20. So, I've been here that long and I still have the passion to do it.