So why does Nas feel he has more at stake with his new Stillmatic LP than with any of his previous four albums?
It's not because of his ongoing lyrical feud with Jay-Z, in which each is out to prove that he's not only the king of New York, but the king of hip-hop itself. And it's not even because his last album, 1999's Nastradamus, was panned by critics and fans.
"It's because I've come full circle with my music," he explained. "Illmatic (1994) was the first album, and I've always been hearing it from the critics about 'Nas' first album was a classic and can he do it again?' and 'I don't like his next album' or 'He went this, he did it this way, he was commercial or pop.' And people always ask me, 'Is Stillmatic gonna be like Illamtic?' And my answer is 'When I made Illmatic I was a little kid in Queensbridge, trapped in the ghetto. My soul was trapped in Queensbridge projects.'
"The hip-hop media lied to me and said there was no world outside of Queensbridge, 'Stay there,' " he continued. "I chose to search for the truth to journey out and bring the truth back to Queensbridge, and that's my mission. That's always gonna be my mission. So with Stillmatic, it's just telling you my mind state now and how it's grown. And it is actually better than Illmatic because it's my views today, and it's taking hip-hop back to hip-hop, and that's everything."
Nas expresses his opinions about the conflict in Afghanistan on "My Country."
"N---as ain't forget sh--," he says during an interlude before the song. "N---as ain't forget nothing. Men, women and children killed by the police, n---as ain't forget that. So what this war shows to me is that whatever you want out of life, whatever you feel is rightfully yours, go out and take it, even if it means blood and death."
"I think there's a lot of artists out there that are really here just to make you dance and really have no substance," he said. "And that's cool because they also inspire me and inspire people to have a good time. When you look at what happened with 9/11, those people who hijacked the plane and tried to destroy America, they probably figured that the whole world would be in turmoil by this time. But ... we're still on our feet, so the terrorists died for nothing. Of course that's gonna bleed into my music.
"Everything that goes on in this world is gonna bleed into my music," he continued. "And I feel like Muhammad Ali at one point. It's like when he said, 'How could you expect a black man to go to war for a country that's tearing his ass apart right here? ... His own country?' First let's fix this place up before we go out there and get killed up again. Peace is needed in this country to kill the racism."
On the song, Nas sings, "My country sh---ed on me/ She wants to get rid of me/ 'Cause the things I seen."
"The concept of the record 'My Country' is about two brothers from the 'hood that used to hang out," explained Nas, who said the song is not meant to dis the entire country. "One gets caught up trying to feed his family and sells drugs and goes to jail, the same thing that happened to his father. One goes to the Army to fight the current war. It features my man Nashawn, and it's sort of like we're communicating to each other. We're just going back and forth about how I wish I was there with him and how my life has been messed up from day one and 'How come my parents didn't have stocks waiting for me when I grew up? How come I had to grow up so rough?' "
He talks about those who refuse to grow up on "2nd Childhood."
" '2nd Childhood' is everyday people," he said. "A second childhood is a good thing and it's a bad thing. You wanna still reach that point in your life where you're full of joy like a kid. The bad part about is when a person can't grow up and doesn't wanna give up being a little, spoiled brat. You got grown women with kids that wanna fight. Their baby fathers are not making the family work. You got grown men who wanna live with their moms forever and sell drugs just living for a day, and it's just really talking about all that in one song. It's produced by DJ Premiere, which is my favorite producer outside of Large Professor."
Large Professor gave Nas his first major exposure on the track "Live at the Barbecue" and produced the rapper's first hit, Illmatic's "It Ain't Hard to Tell." The two are reunited on Stillmatic's "You're Da Man" and "Rewind."
" 'Rewind,' that's classic Nas," the rapper said. "That's really my style. I like to make sure that on each album there's something interesting that writers could be inspired by as far as content and the way it's done. It's just a part of me. [For] 'Rewind' ... I said, 'Man, it'll be cool if I could talk about a murder in the 'hood, but what if we rewind the whole thing where it never happened? If things could happen like that.' I knew that nobody was even thinking about that. And it naturally came to me. ... I love to inspire."