NEW YORK — Yes, it did feel as hot as a 19th-century Louisiana cotton field, as some people inside New York's Blender Theater at Gramercy noted Tuesday night at Nas' standing-room-only show. The hip-hop legend was celebrating the release of his latest LP, Untitled, a record that raised ire and interest when he announced the original title, Nigger, last year. But for celebs like Swizz Beatz and Polow Da Don, attending the show wasn't about controversy or even about going out because it's the cool event to attend in the city. Nas' fans and peers alike still have an uncanny fascination with the kid from Queensbridge who took lyricism to the upper echelon in the 1990s (that's in any genre, not just rap).
Everyone in the audience could tell you exactly when they fell in love with God's Son and his boldly brilliant wordplay laced with ghetto gusto and b-boy bluster. In the past decade and a half, he's been labeled everything from the "second coming" to the "King of Rap" to "Lyrical Messiah" to the "Greatest MC of All Time." (Kanye West recently trumpeted him with that honor via his blog. Nas also made MTV News' Greatest MCs of All Time list.) Untitled has already been heralded as one of Nas' best as well as easily one of 2008's top hip-hop LPs. For Esco though, he's just excited to get it out and still be a factor in music after all these years.
"I'm ready to get in and do another one," he said Saturday night at Manhattan's Pace University, attending a charity event for Sichuan earthquake relief. Leading up to the release of Untitled, there had been talk about the album being the last in his contract with Def Jam, giving the MC his first taste of free agency since he was signed to Columbia Records in the early '90s. Other artists may have wanted to make a commercial monster, appealing to both radio and clubs with a vengeance. Nas went the exact opposite route, concocting a masterpiece with abstract 'hood references ("Girls dye their hair with Kool-Aid"), blatant political barks and the sort of signature "did-you-hear-what-he's-saying?" statements that he admits go over some people's heads.
"What will be, will be," he smiled Tuesday morning in the "TRL" greenroom. "There's no one who could dangle a check in front of my face and make me go a certain way. There's no one that could. I see or hear so many times about artists that cry for the CEOs, or whatever their process is [to get] their point across. That's painful. This industry can be that painful. I don't allow it to be, man. It doesn't run me. It doesn't dictate to me which way it's going. I'm fully aware. Tomorrow's a mystery sometimes. But I'm fully aware of where I'm going.
"Like, I know this record, I could have got dropped [off the label]," he added. "On this record, people could have really took it the wrong way and really wanted to physically harm me. I knew that. But that's my pay. If people sit and talk, if people look at it like, 'This guy's got something to say no matter what's going on in the industry.' Why should we play it safe all the time? Why should we?"
Originally Nas didn't even want to release a single or video for the album, but he changed his mind when he saw how high the interest level was from the fans. His favorite cut on the album is "Testify."
"I just burnt my American flag/ And sent a cracker Nazi to hell, and I'm sad," he raps to start the record off.
"That one is like a man that's asking you, 'Will you die with me?' " he explained. "That sh-- is like truth. That's the truth. Cut the budgets, cut all this rap sh-- out. I mean, that song is like, 'Hold on.' It represents a lot of frustration and a lot of people. I wanted to have a lot of difference and emotion on it. Different sides of a man or a human being. And that one there was like, 'This one is not rap. This is not music. This one is just — forget everything. This is just from the heart of frustrated man.' It represents that guy."
At the Blender Theater, he started off with an interlude called "N---er Hatred," then got down to it with "N.*.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)."
"Damn, it's hot in here," he said, lamenting the broken air-conditioning in the building. Later he told the audience about the grave conditions surrounding the LP's release.
"This is a very serious album for me. This is the n---er album."
"Sly Fox," in which he goes off at Fox News, was next. "Turn channel 5 off," he implored the crowd, referencing New York's Fox affiliate. "Tell Jesse Jackson to turn his mic off."
Then came "Breathe." "That one," he had told MTV that morning, "came early up in the album. Jay Electronica came with the Jay Electronica sound. It's just me rhyming about sh-- that a lot of cats wouldn't catch unless they can catch me making references to 'One Love' and making references from the Five Percent Nation and coming back to some fly sh--.
"So what I'm basically saying is 'Can't a n---a just breathe?' " he added. "I know there's a lot, but yo, there's a lot of weight on my shoulders, a lot of weight on your shoulders. Can't a n---a just breathe? I wanted the track to feel like, 'This ain't gonna be heavy about the first black man to die in the Civil War. This is gonna be "can" a n---a just breathe? Y'all police on our back, but can't a n---a just breathe?' We just trying to come outside and have fun. I just made 100 million in Hollywood — can I just do me? I wanna do me, ya know? Make America better."
Throughout the night, Nas' following braved the heat, watching the Queens legend perform more tracks from Untitled as well as a large portion of material from Illmatic and sprinkles of classics from his catalog. "Made You Look" was the finale.
Afterward, the party headed downtown to a loft party where the DJ spun mostly old-school joints. LL Cool J showed up to celebrate with Nas in VIP.