NAS at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Saturday (December 11), 5:30 pm all-ages and 9 pm (sold out). $39.95. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Call it the Nas you've been waiting for. The half-man, half-amazing rap poet has regained control of his ego, and, as a consequence, his music is more important than it's been in a long time. A far cry from five years, when he was portraying Jesus in his video for Hate Me Now. There he was, crucified, rapping from high on the cross about how he was still gettin' money in spite of all y'all haters.
It looked like he was nursing the kind of messiah complex that'd warm Mel Gibson's heart.
Not that Nas would ever give a flying fuck about Mel's opinion. As the architect of Illmatic, 94's hallmark record of golden-era East Coast hiphop, the rapper had been a legend for years.
He cemented that status via his feud with another New York rapper who liked to call himself God at a time when Nas was at his wackest.
It was during that prolonged, high-profile beef with Jay-Z, lyrically, that Nas snapped out of Mariah-remix mode sounding hungrier than ever. He was spraying more venom at Jigga than most heads thought he had in him. When the dust finally settled, both rappers were still standing. Nas had assumed a new stance.
Over his next two joints, the MC from the same hood as Marley Marl made like Jenga and elevated his game, replacing references to shiny things and Jacuzzi pimpin' with incisive social commentary and personal off-my-chest shit.
Asked about his more down-to-earth style, Nas says, "I guess it's just something that people should watch and look," his grainy Queensbridge-accented voice coming over the phone from San Francisco. "It's what happens once you make it. A few albums have been around for a few years. You progress and things change, and who knows what the next album'll sound like? Who knows, you know?"
It's the first in a series of responses that alternate between vague and monosyllabic that make one thing clear: Nas is most intent on discussing his new record, Street's Disciple.
It's his first double LP. In a genre where a double disc is seen as a sign of bloat (a year later, is anyone still listening to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below?), it's a gutsy move.
"Most of my peers have done it," he says, "and I was trying to do one in 98, but shit ain't go right. So here I am now, at the perfect time, when I have so much to say, and I couldn't put it all on one record."
Though some heads have knee-jerkingly cried "filler," I'm not hearing it. Street's Disciple isn't just Nas's best since Illmatic. It's one of the most substantial rap albums dropped in years.
Coasting over a consistently def set of beats courtesy of the usual suspects, L.E.S., Salaam Remi, Buckwild, Q-Tip and himself - Premier will be on the next record, he promises - the MC offers unique cynicism about American life, speaks on his fiancée (spacey R&B neo-diva Kelis) and rails against Condi, Kobe and Tiger for misreppin' the black community, among the album's reams of flipped Scripture.
But for Nas, nothing on the record was as risky as teaming up with his 63-year-old Mississippi-born father, trumpeter Olu Dara (see sidebar, this page), who rose to prominence among New York's 70s jazz loft scene and sings and blows on the Muddy Waters-ish second single from Disciple, Bridging The Gap.
"Doing that song with my pops was dangerous," he says. "A lot of people don't like to see a black man with his father, shining. So that was a risk, for my life, to take. Makes me more of a target, you know?"
But working with his father, says Nas, was "the greatest thing in the world."
Says Olu Dara himself some days later via cellphone from New York, "It reminded me of the way we were when he was really young. When Nas was four or five years old, we used to lay around the house and make music with his brother on my little indigenous instruments and my piano or whatever I had in the house. We would always be trying to make some kind of music together and taping it on cassettes and listening back to it."
It doesn't get more earnest than hearing Dara, in his weathered Southern drawl, reminisce over his son's childhood.
"He was a visual artist. Actually, we both are. It runs in the family. He loved to read, and I loved to get him books. He was also very interested in dancing, to the point where, I guess when he was nine or 10, he was very famous. He was known around New York.
"And he loved to go places with me. He liked to play with the kids, but he always wanted to be where his parents were, so in turn he would wind up in lots of studios and other events with me, and I used to take him to Lincoln Center to see those first rap movies coming out, like Krush Groove and things like that, when he was very young. That was a good thing, because he wasn't a kid who didn't like to be around his father. It made life very easy for us."
Now 31, on Street's Disciple Nas is saying hi to the man and goodbye to the gigolo because he's found the lady he wants to spend the rest of his bankroll with. Pharrell's homey Kelis, of Milkshake fame, appears twice on the record - many more times if you count up his references to her. So on the subject of their togetherness, you'd think he'd have a lot to say.
But asked if he's excited about their upcoming marriage, Nas grunts, "Yeah."
Uh-huh. So is he looking forward to having more children, some young siblings for his 10-year-old daughter?
"Can't wait," he says.
Olu Dara, on the other hand, has a great story about his future daughter-in-law.
"She came around the house and I quizzed her," he says of one of his first meetings with Kelis. "It turns out that I knew her mother when her mother was 13. Further along the conversation, I found out that I knew her father also, separately. Her father was a musician. We played together many years."
"I think," says Nas's pops, "our whole story is about destiny."
Who's your daddy?
Nas's Salaam Remi-produced single Bridging The Gap is the object of much hype (you can even answer your celly to its polyphonic remix) for subverting hiphop's absentee-father stereotype with a toasty duet between the rapper and his musician daddy, Olu Dara. But don't get it twisted - the two have been collaborating under the radar for the last decade. On 94's Illmatic, Dara, who first etched a name for himself in New York in the 70s and 80s as an avant-garde free jazz cornetist, played on the hook to Life's A Bitch. Nas returned the favour four years later, kicking spoken word on Dara's first album, In The World: From Natchez To New York. That soul-mining record raised critics' eyebrows by uncorking Dara's blues vocals, folky guitar chops and soulful quirks.
The follow-up, 01's Neighborhoods, finds Dara surfing a jambalaya of Caribbean, jazz, African and Southern R&B styles but never quite catching that big wave. Reinvention, however, is Nas's poppa's bag. For better or worse, you can bank on Dara's next album to offer something fresh.
"When this Bridging The Gap settles down," he says, "I'll probably go back in the studio once I find out my new personality. Which is gonna be a nice thing to do."