Ill At Ease

To paraphrase LL Cool J, Nas doesn't want people to call his return a comeback, since he's been here for years. But hip-hop addicts don't see things this way and never have.

"Every time I make an album, they're always saying, 'He's coming back,'" grumbles the rapper during a telephone interview to promote his latest disc, Stillmatic. "It's always been like that, even when it's something positive--you know, like they're all happy I'm coming back."

As for Nas, he doesn't exactly seem overjoyed to be answering questions in the glare of a national spotlight that last shone brightly on him in 1999 thanks to a pair of albums--I Am... and Nastradamus--that he issued in quick succession. When he's not snapping impatiently, he's showing that his sizable persecution complex, which seemingly reached its apex with the I Am... smash "Hate Me Now" ("Well, you hate me, I'm gonna hate you, too/It's as simple as that/Die motherfucker, die motherfucker, die"), hasn't faded appreciably. At one point, he says, "It frustrates me when people miss the whole point of what I'm doing and what I've been doing." Moments later, he declares, "Nobody's real, but I'm real. That's what gives me longevity, and that's what a lot of the hip-hop media doesn't understand about me. I'm not into all of that other shit. I'm into what's real."

Neither is he willing to back down. Last year, at a summer concert sponsored by a radio station in New York City, hip-hop titan Jay-Z threw an insult at Nas into one of his songs, inspiring Nas to return the favor. These gibes sparked an old-fashioned battle of the sort that hasn't taken place on this scale since before the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Fortunately, the clash hasn't had such dire consequences. "We all saw and grew from what happened to B.I.G.," Nas says. "So nowadays it just shows that two brothers can argue and not have a fight."

Indeed, the competition has been bloodless, with each combatant using a song as his weapon: Jay-Z fired off "Takeover," featured on 2001's The Blueprint, prompting Nas to counter with a Stillmatic assault dubbed "Ether." No official winner has been declared, but most observers think that Jay-Z got the better of the scrap. While the majority of Nas' insults came across as juvenile (especially homophobic mentions of "Gay-Z" and "Cockafella Records," a reference to Jay's Roc-A-Fella imprint), Jay-Z's were lethal darts aimed directly at his rival's authenticity: "There's only so long fake thugs can pretend/Nigga, you ain't lived it, you witnessed it from your folks' pad."

Further benefiting Jay-Z was his recent run of success (among the longest and most impressive stretches in hip-hop history) and the quality of The Blueprint as a whole; from start to finish, it may be his best disc. Stillmatic, on the other hand, has received mixed reviews. Still, it's sold almost 2 million copies since its release late last year, spawned at least one hit ("One Mic") and most critics see it as an improvement over I Am... and Nastradamus, which were regarded in some quarters as overt attempts to make Nas more palatable to a mass audience. For his latest disc, Nas maintains, kowtowing to radio programmers was the last thing on his mind.

"There are thousands of bullshit rap CDs that come out every fucking week," he says. "So this is me just going, 'Let's make a real hip-hop album, because I don't hear any lately.'

"The stuff I grew up on was the true hip-hop, but now it's a commercial playground," he continues. "I'm not mad about that. It's good that people can make money making music that's fun and good, and it's new--it's a new style. But I'm still a big, big fan of the music from my day--music from the golden era that I grew up listening to in the '80s."

Born Nasir Jones in 1973, Nas has an excellent musical pedigree: His father is Olu Dara, an avant-garde jazz trumpeter who's put out a couple of charming, wonderfully eclectic solo albums, including 1998's In the World: From Natchez to New York, on which Nas has a cameo. But he hardly grew up in comfort, having spent his formative years living in a New York-area housing project. Nas dropped out of school in eighth grade, and at age 18, he made his first commercial recording, slinging rhymes on "Live at the Barbecue," a cut on Main Source's 1991 album Breaking Atoms. (Main Source's trio of members included Large Professor, who'd go on to produce some of Nas' finest tracks.) Afterward, 3rd Bass' MC Serch recruited him to contribute to the soundtrack for the 1992 film Zebrahead, further lifting his profile and bringing him to the attention of Columbia Records. Two years later, the label put out Illmatic, which is among the top hip-hop debuts ever--a group of unexpectedly jazzy ghetto anthems like "N.Y. State of Mind" and "The World is Yours" that Nas delivered with jaw-slackening authority and skill.