Nas: More Than Words

Seated in a quiet corner of New York restaurant the Spotted Pig, Nas is drinking a glass of rosé. He's dressed comfortably in jeans, Velcro-fastened sneakers and a white T-shirt with a poster from Mu

Seated in a quiet corner of New York restaurant the Spotted Pig, Nas is drinking a glass of rosé. He's dressed comfortably in jeans, Velcro-fastened sneakers and a white T-shirt with a poster from Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's "Thrilla in Manilla" fight. His black Rolls Royce is parked outside and he's awaiting a few cigars from his driver.

In here, the noise surrounding his new Def Jam album, formerly known as "N*gger," has faded, but Nas is still happy to discuss the grand implications of it all. In the past nine months, the veteran has proved masterful at wagging the dog. Since last October, when Nas first announced his intentions for the album title, he's drawn all kinds of responses: ire from African-American activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, but support from Def Jam chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid. Then after retail distributors, which neither Def Jam nor Nas would identify, claimed they wouldn't carry an album called "N*gger," Nas rechristened it as an untitled project, starting yet another round of debate on popular hip-hop sites like

As the record nears its July 15 release, Nas is the first to admit he's not a one-man show. Def Jam, a unit of publicly traded company Vivendi, has to market this hot-button album while maintaining its market share, which begs the question: How do a corporation and an artist balance creative integrity with the bottom line? "If I was the one watching all this shit happen, I would want to see me ride to the end," says Nas, who promises that the album's incendiary commentary on race relations remains. "Except a lot of so-called black leaders were using my album as a platform for themselves. I would have been fighting not to get the 'N*gger' album out but to express myself, and that's not the fight I wanted. This album is about me and how I feel as a black man."

Aside from the new name, or lack thereof, Nas' subject matter is rare. Especially in contemporary commercial hip-hop, which sells everything from mobile phones to fast food, and the three hip-hop songs atop Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart—Plies' "Bust It Baby Part 2" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" and "A Milli"—focus on sex and braggadocio. However, Nas says he recorded the album with a balance of education and entertainment in mind.

"I didn't want to 'n*gger' my audience to death," he says. "So 'Be a N*gger Too,' which I recently released a video for, isn't on the album. It didn't fit. The entire record deals with the concept, but every song couldn't be 'n*gger.' I had to pace myself."

The album includes production and features from Cool & Dre, Green Lantern, Mark Ronson, Polow Da Don, Busta Rhymes, Keri Hilson, Chris Brown and Stargate. Throughout, Nas finds creative ways to address his chosen subject matter. On the Rhymes-featuring "Fried Chicken," Nas uses a woman as a metaphor for soul food and black people's attraction to deadly eating habits. ("Mrs. Fried Chicken/fly vixen/give me heart disease but still I need you in my kitchen," he raps.)

On "N.*.G.G.E.R. (The Slave & the Master)," the MC nods to his hit "I Can," where he runs down the historic inventions of the African Diaspora, amid describing the bittersweet calling cards of low-income life like "schools with outdated books." First single "Hero," featuring Hilson, boasts anthemic synthesizers, a tuba, running keys and a swelling chorus as Nas explains why he changed the album title. Key lyric: "I'm hog-tied on the corporate side blocking y'all from going in stores and buying it/at first L.A. and Doug Morris was riding with it/but Newsweek articles startled bigwigs and asked Nas, why is you trying it?"

Back at the Spotted Pig, Nas has lit one of the cigars and is musing that he doesn't need to market himself like other artists. And he may be correct.

During his 14-year career, the MC has had only six top 10 singles on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but four of his albums—"It Was Written," "The Firm—The Album," "I Am" and "Hip-Hop Is Dead"—debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And despite a nearly nine-month publicity binge, none of the leaked singles from the new project have charted.

According to Nas, it's because he can "do [Nielsen] SoundScan numbers like everyone else" without following the usual promotional pattern. While his highest-selling album to date is 1996's "It Was Written" at 2.5 million copies, according to SoundScan, perhaps his Muhammad Ali T-shirt boasting the phrase "The Greatest," and/or that rosé, is getting Nas riled up. Or maybe after more than a decade in hip-hop, he's just being honest.

"From Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Kanye [West], I've been around longer than all of them and I don't need any of their marketing," Nas says. "The people are my marketing, and that puts me in a class by myself."