···Nasir Jones was 20 and already reckoning with things other rappers had never reckoned with.Illmatic, his debut, was an instant classic in a genre that wasn't yet old enough to have classic records. It was 1994, and rap's audience was suddenly infinite. Who were they? What did they want? He was writing the rule book. And now, at 41, he still is, navigating middle age in a young man's game. On his last album, he posed on the cover with his ex-wife's wedding dress. No one had done that before: a feeling that Nas long since became used to. We spoke in December, as New Yorkers protesting the death of Eric Garner blanketed the streets of the city—Nas among them.
GQ: Last year was the twentieth anniversary of Illmatic. Do you recognize that person who made that record now? Nas: Sure—he was a vivacious young man full of a lot of great ideas, excited and ready.
Would he recognize you? That young man would've saw past who I am today. I've slowed myself down, probably. That young man was prepared to go further.
You're saying your level of ambition is lower now? I'm basically saying I can't do twenty shows a month. Back then I probably could.
Illmatic was one of the first records to be hailed as a classic rap album. Did that ever feel like a burden, having to live up to it? There was times before that people who were into the music had felt anxious for me to do something like it again. But I always felt blessed that I got music out there the way I wanted to get it out there, as soon as I shot the first shot.
But when you're in the studio shooting the third shot, are you ever like, "Man, I wish that first shot hadn't gone in so well"? Then that'd mean I wish I didn't exist. It'd be like saying I want to redo what I did before. And I don't respect that. That's not how I think.
You were also one of the first guys who had to deal with the fact that rappers all of a sudden could have this massive commercial success, right? You watched Biggie do it. The audience got bigger. Do you think your music changed once you realized there was an audience for it that was potentially massive? Yeah, but it first changed because there was so many people that sounded similar. Once you do something new, then everything comes out sounding similar—the way a lot of things sound like Future today. So you have to come back and change it up. This music thing will challenge you, and it's not nice to anybody. If there's something good, it's going to be imitated. And I had to overcome that. And then you had B.I.G., who was just killing the world and taking his core with him while he went mainstream with it—which was not happening at the time, because hip-hop music didn't play on radio all day until he helped it. He took it to a higher level. Biggie just shook everybody off of him and said, "Can you do this?" And you couldn't sit there and say, "Nah, I'm not going to do it." When B.I.G. took it to a bigger level, if you couldn't compete, you were out the game. And that's what happened to at least twenty different guys who were out around that time.
Why weren't you one of those twenty guys? Because I'm in it to be what the essence of hip-hop is. If MCs are saying they're this and they're that, and they're claiming that they're this and that in the lyrics, and then you fall short, you're out. It's in the rhymes. It's in the records. The records tell you what it is. You listen to everybody's record during that time, they're telling you, "We're aiming for the top," "I'm this," "I'm the best," "I'm that"—and I was in it just like them. Just like Biggie, just like the rest of them.
With Jay Z, you were a part of maybe the most visible rap feud short of Biggie and Tupac. Looking back on it now, what do you think the legacy of that was? At the end of the day, the mission was to glue the game back: no more deaths. At this point, it's about moving on and making something out of it. Because Biggie and Pac never lived to see that. They didn't live to see themselves grow in this game. They did so much so young, which is great, but we'd love to have them here. All their fans and family miss them. They were the sacrifices, the martyrs for the entire hip-hop business.
Like when you go back and listen to "Ether" now, what do you hear? I don't. But I do listen to Biggie's "Kick in the Door." My friend last night told me, "He was coming for you, Nas. He was serious." We go back to those times before we were established—when we were still one foot on the top and one foot on the street. Those were the times we talk about. Anything other than that, we're chilling out.
So "Ether" is not a song you'll revisit? Word.
You're 41 now. How have you changed as you've gotten older? Now I think about Silicon Valley, I think about Napa Valley. I think about business and relaxing. Not too much—relax too much, you die.
Would you have posed with your ex-wife's dress on the cover of a record, as you did with 2012's Life Is Good, when you were 20? I would've took it to another level. I'd have had an imitation of her—someone who looked like her in the dress. I would've went way further with it. That's why the younger generation needs to never be afraid to go all the way. Because I wasn't afraid. I expressed myself honestly. And it's important for them to see that. After that thing happened, don't be surprised if you see a 21-year-old artist do something similar, with a wedding ring or something. It's going to happen.
Do you ever consider retirement? From time to time I do consider it. It's a busy life. So you want to sit back and think about doing different things and imagine what it'd be like. Deion Sanders was able to suit up for a baseball game and a football game in the same day. You think about him; you go, "Wow, what else should I do?"
What would you be doing if you weren't rapping? I'd be still creating. It could be screenplays, it could be bottled water, it could be a farm industry. It could be making up my own deodorant, it could be studying to be an engineer—highly unlikely, that one. But who knows?
I saw that you were protesting the Eric Garner verdict in New York City with Russell Simmons the other night. Do you have the activist calling at all? But we're already that. We're already activists. I'm looking at what's happening to the world, and I'm waiting for people to stop being scared. Mainly whites in power and in government, to not be scared of the race issue. Not be scared to say, "This is wrong, and this has to change." Not be scared to do what's right.
What do you think people are scared of? Votes. Their career. Backlash. They're confused; they don't really know much about it. We're all human beings. So I understand being scared. But at some point, you got to come out and do the right thing. No matter who you are, you got to put the people first. Compassion, and your love for people, has to exist. And your love to humanity has to exist. It can't just always be about your career, your money, your stature, where you think you belong in this government. You've got to be about reality and love.