NAS HAS AWFUL HANDWRITING—as in doctor's-handwriting awful. I know this because, while he's getting a haircut in another room, I'm down the hall snooping through a pad and some loose papers. It's Nasir Jones' book of rhymes.

There's a title at the top of a page: "Memories of a Project.” It sounds fake—something off one of those bogus track listings that "leak” onto the Internet months before an album's release date. But there are lyrics scrawled below the title—not that I can read them. I can only make out half a bar, "My skid-row barrio.”

I'm about to look closer, but I hear a voice booming from the hallway. "Come with me/Hail Mary, nigga run quick, see.” Nas strolls into the studio still reciting 2Pac, of course, over-enunciating the last syllable of every half bar, and takes a seat.

We're at Westlake Studios on Beverly Boulevard, about two blocks from the Beverly Center, hangout to L.A.'s upper-middle-class mallrats. These are the dungeons of rap circa 2008. It's where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller in 1982. It's where Nas recorded his new album. The title? Yes, that word. Yes, ending with an "er.” It's provocative, ambitious and kind of a risky move.

Today Nas will address the new album, but in the inaugural KING Legacy Q&A, he also tackles his entire 17-year career: the feuds with Biggie, 2Pac and Jay-Z; It Was Written; his overzealous fans; "Ether”; success; and "Success.” And the answer to the million-dollar question: Is he the greatest of all time?

The hot rumor is that Def Jam will drop you if you don't change the album title. Any legs to that?
Somebody told me that [one] about me getting dropped. That sounds funny, though. I guess that just stays a rumor. But I enjoy those rumors too, because that means there's fear.

What will it say about the record industry if Def Jam drops you, 10 albums deep, over a single word?
That starts a revolution. It sparks something within the hip-hop community, within the streets, within the people outside the streets. It raises an eyebrow to the situation, you know? Nobody wants to deal with the word "nigger,” because what comes with the word "nigger” is a whole history where you show so much injustice, and you show so much that has not been fixed yet. So it's a scary thing. But it's also uncomfortable when I'm dealing with it. Like, no one can tell me what to do. None of the black leaders, none of these motherfuckers, record companies, none of them can tell me what to do. Because you can't stop what I want to do, you understand?

Do you remember the first time you were discriminated against because you were black?
The first time I opened up a Superman comic book. The first time I saw Flashdance, with the light-skinned, beautiful bitch who's chasing after some white cat, which…I don't have nothing against interracial relationships—love 'em, actually.

Wait. On "These Are Our Heroes,” you mentioned Tiger Woods…
A lot of times, when people look at me, they look too deep into it. Tiger Woods standing up for this white lady who said something about him being lynched is a coon move to me. God bless the brother. I like to see him doing his thing, but that's a flaw to his character. That's an issue I would have with Tiger Woods; not who he is married to. I don't even know who he's married to.

I'm asking because you shouted out him, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Taye Diggs. They're all married to white women.
I saw Cuba Gooding do a hand spin or some shit on an awards show—that's very coonish to me. I can't remember what Taye Diggs did, but I didn't know he was married to a white woman. You know who my hero is? Richard Pryor. He was married seven times. My favorite wife of his is Debra, one of the white girls.

Who else were your heroes?
Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono.

Love her.

Why Yoko?
How could you not love Yoko?

She broke up the Beatles.
That was a great thing, 'cause then she gave us "Give Peace a Chance,” "Imagine.” When John Lennon left the Beatles, he was able to do that shit.

OK, on to your music. I'm not making this up: On the flight from New York, the person next to me asked why I was going to L.A. I said, "I'm interviewing Nas.” She said, and I paraphrase, "I like Nas, except when he rapped like he was a drug kingpin.”
Oh, that's great, man. If you have a catalog, you go back to certain records guys did, and one record is for [one] crowd, another record is for another crowd. It shouldn't all be the same thing; it should be all different dimensions of yourself. I was talking about coke on my first album because that's what I was around. On the second album, you had to take it to the next level—that Escobar lifestyle with the hot shoes; a nigga was dressing up the way I always wanted to be. I kept it thorough with who I was. A lot of fans aren't into gangster rap. They are going to listen to shit they like, and that's cool.

Do your longtime fans have unrealistic standards for you?
I like to hear somebody else say it, 'cause I know I'm not crazy. Yeah, man, I got the craziest, most hard-core fans in the game, and I love them, man. I'm human and I show you that. I wear that on my sleeve. I'm honest to a fault most of the time. And if they hear you being honest about one thing, they think that's all you are. Then you might touch on something else, and it's, "Hey, what's going on?” And they don't really know. It's like, I'm here recording, giving you guys a piece of me. I'm giving motherfuckers little bits and pieces of me.

If you stray from anything you did on Illmatic, it's, "How dare you?”
That's not me no more. If Preme got a track that I feel can fit on my shit, great. If Large Professor got a track that I feel can fit on my shit, great. But we did our project together. We done that.

Did you know that It Was Written would alienate your core fans?
I knew when we recorded "If I Ruled the World” that a lot of people were going to be thrown way off. That was the whole challenge of it. If you didn't feel nervous in your gut, then you were bullshitting yourself. At that point, everyone was doing Illmatic. People were sounding like me also. So with that, it was, "Now, let me do something they can't do.”

Did you doubt Steve Stoute's vision for your career?
Nah, that was the whole point. When we met, it was both of our decision to take on the world. We needed to step into the million-dollar bracket now, and that's what we did together, along with TrackMasters. Everybody else had a squad, a team. The players in the game at that time were Puff and Biggie, RZA and Wu-Tang, Dr. Dre and Death Row. It only made sense for us to come together. Steve used to say that I'm scared of success. We would be doing stuff top of the world, and I would be like, "Nah, man, that's too much.” I was straight out the projects. I wasn't used to dealing with these industry folks. I wasn't with it.

What did he want you to do?
Just go kill the game. That's not what I wanted to do. I done seen my pops come up and do his music thing and have his life. Around that time, people like Mase started to become really big, a lot of people were becoming really big, and it all seemed phony to me. I felt like I could maintain. I watched Scarface's career at the time, and he was doing a million off the underground, the streets. It was like the way I grew up listening to N.W.A., the streets, no radio. It started to get too big for me. The second album, the third album, it was starting to get too big.

Did you make bad decisions artistically?
Nah, I was holding it down. I would do a Primo track, "Nas Is Like,” for the lead single and then come with "Hate Me Now.” I was playing the game, but there were other parts of the game that I had to play. I wasn't trying to show up for nothing—endorsements, tours. You couldn't put a gun to my head and make me tour.

Click here to read Part Two

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