It’s hard to believe at this stage of his 30-plus-year career that rap legend Nas has never headlined New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. But his February 24 show here is a fitting a celebration of the King’s Disease trilogy, the three-album series (plus a bonus collection, Magic), created with prolific producer Hit-Boy over the last three years, that returned Nas to the upper echelon of the game and garnered Nasir his first Grammy (for King’s Disease, which kicked off the run in 2021). “enjoying it and I’m really putting the music first and nothing else,” Nas says moments before he takes the stage. “And when that comes, you never know what could come from it.”
The scene before the show is chill and reserved, in stark contrast to his younger days, when Nas ran with a hometown crew of Queens troublemakers. The calm is broken only by a frantic stage manager, who pops up to ask Nas’ manager, Anthony Saleh, to clear some names on the guest list. Saleh, known as Ant, has to hold the line—“or else we’d have all of Queensbridge up here,” he says. (Onstage, Nas would be joined by surprise guests including Mary J. Blige, Slick Rick and AZ.) Back in the dressing room, Nas is beaming. His brother and frequent character in his raps, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, drops in at one point. “Tonight’s gonna be a big night,” he says as the brothers embrace.
Indeed, the show was one of the best that Nas has ever put on, with the focus and renewed energy of his recent albums translated to the stage as he took command of the crowd, emerging in a very New York OG look: long brown shearling coat by Daniel’s Leather worn over custom all-white cargos and field jacket, finished with Rick Owens Dunks. Keeping the classics in reserve for the second half, he started with a run through over 20 songs from his Kings Disease albums and Magic.
After a short intermission, Nas then returned in an even more New York fit: red, white and blue Avirex leather jacket with a Tommy Jeans chest patch, all-orange tracksuit (a homage to his Stillmatic cover), wheat Timberland boots, and Rick Owens shield sunglasses that evoked Kool Moe Dee. He charged through essentials like “New York State Of Mind,” “Made You Look,” and “One Mic,” and even went acapella for the second verse of “Memory Lane,” to cheers from the crowd.
In his encore, Nas revealed that his late mother—Fannie Ann Jones, who he honored in his 2002 song, “Dance”—once worked at the post office across the street from the Garden. The unflappable Queens cat was overcome with emotion as he cried out, “Hey ma, we did it! To every project kid, we did it!”
GQ: On King’s Disease 2, you have a song called “Moments.” Tonight feels like one of those. How do you feel, less than an hour before you’re about to hit that Madison Square Garden Stage?
Nas: It’s surreal because being that you grew up in New York, you go, What does New York have to offer me? What do I need to conquer? It pushes, it drives you. This city offers you a lot at a very young age, to want to see what you can do or bring… and the Garden is the Garden. It’s where Elvis in the ‘70s was nervous to perform after a hiatus. It’s where Sinatra felt he was getting older, and wanted to make a mark with The Main Event.
And Run-DMC in 1986! With the fans holding their Adidas sneakers in the air.
That was it! That took hip hop to the next phase. Those moments are undefeated. So since back then, getting that look as a rapper was the goal. But the time got away from me because I was shooting videos, big videos with Hype Williams and Paul Hunter and Joseph Kahn. And when you’re doing that, you’re hitting MTV. All those things were happening, [and] these venues were not insuring shows for rappers. So [the goal] kind of became a thing of the past. Now that I’m here, in 2023, I’m like, Oh, shit. You know what? Let’s do this.
Do you think the success of your investment company, Queensbridge Ventures, makes that easier to just focus on the art?
I had so many albums under my belt that new opportunities were opening up, different things were opening up at the right time, and me and Ant were focused on that. So I took some time off from music. But you get that hunger again. We started to go, Oh, shit. Some years got away from me. Let me get back into the studio, see what I got to say now.
That’s the challenge though, right? We often see our heroes run out of stuff to say or lose their audience. How do you achieve longevity while maintaining relevance?
We evolve. Today, 60 year old people look a little younger. We figured out what’s better, health-wise, from just seeing what happened to generations before us. If you’re going to take care of your mind, body, and soul, then the things that come out of them are going to be more timeless.
Also, the music business has changed. It’s an open thing now. It’s not just for companies, [where] you have to follow their instructions [or] can’t do a record unless they open up a budget for you. People have their own studios. People are working on their own, working by their own rules.
You’ve said that Hit-Boy sparked this new career run. A key factor is that you guys are cooking up together in the studio. It isn’t just like you’re sending files back and forth to each other online.
Yeah. He improves on every record. And that is encouraging. It’s like, This is somebody who actually wants to work and if you want to work, we can really find the diamonds. He’s found my sound. And we don’t sound like anybody else. But that takes a producer who really cares about you, about what you’re working on, about what you have to offer, that they feel like they can really bring it out of you. I think that’s what a producer should be doing with artists. That’s what’s probably missing a little bit today.
I haven’t been in the studio this much in years. One of [Hit-Boy’s] homies came into the studio and started laughing and said, “You in the studio more than the young boys.” It’s because Hit wants to join me on a journey and he gets excited to top what we just created.
Even within the King’s Disease trilogy, you snuck in an album, Magic. Why’d you put that out and not just save those songs?
We had a number one album with King’s Disease II. At that moment when we found out it was number one, we were at this house and we were having a celebration and Hit wasn’t smiling. I said, “What’s up, bro?” And he said, “We got to do another project right away, because they might think that I can’t deliver on a certain level, at a certain style. We’re going to go harder real quick for the people.” I was surprised that’s where his head was. And I said, “Shit. That’s the beats and stuff I love, so let’s go in.” So Magic just happened to happen, and we dropped it as a gift on Christmas.
What are the new songs from the King’s Disease series that you can’t wait to perform tonight?
I can’t wait to do all that shit. I get to test these songs out on the people and test myself.
Give me one.
What inspired him to flip that sample from Five Heartbeats, the film about The Temptations?
I think it was the music we were playing at my birthday that we [all] were singing along to. I come to the studio and he’s got it. The way he flips it, it’s the way I like to work. It’s not normal. It’s not easy. It’s not put together on some bullshit, like a lot of other stuff.
You came into the rap game like LeBron James. By the time you released Illmatic in 1994, you were the chosen one, our new Rakim. How did you process that at the time?
It was just some ill shit. But my energy was pure and people were happy to see me do my thing. And they knew I was carrying with me my love for the culture. The same way LeBron studied who came before him in basketball, I did in hip-hop. Still, you don’t really know at the time. You know you’re good, but you don’t know at the time how far it’s going to go. Next thing you know, you turn around and you go, Oh, okay. What I’ve done has been influential.
I’ve seen little pieces of things I’ve done become somebody else’s whole entire wave. Almost every rapper was giving you Illmatic-type stuff before I could even put out my second album.
Today, It Was Written is celebrated like Illmatic. But at the time of its release in 1996, rap critics like myself weren’t ready for the change you were making. You and The Trackmasters were creating a new sound. What inspired that?
Well, I saw the same producers that I had worked with were now giving everybody else beats and then throwing me the same beats. That just wouldn’t do it for me. So I decided to make my rap style a little bit harder for them to follow. They’re not going to follow me on a song like, “The Message.” They’re not going to follow me on “I Gave You Power.” They’re definitely not going to follow me on “If I Ruled the World.” I got Lauryn Hill on it. They [didn’t] even fully get the Fugees at the time.
It Was Written is triple platinum and is still your most successful album to date. And you addressed us non-believers on the next album, I Am… with “Hate Me Now.”
Absolutely. These dudes didn’t want me to sell records. They wanted me to stay on an underground level, and I understand what they mean a little bit. But at the same time, Biggie made it different, where you can’t just be the hot dude that they liked from New York to Connecticut to Virginia. You got to hit the mainstream. You got to touch the world.
Your conflict with Jay-Z shook up the rap world. And just from a musical standpoint, that led to this whole second chapter of your career with classic albums like Stillmatic and God’s Son.
That’s just being reminded of what rap is, being shocked, taking it places you didn’t think you were going to go with it as an artist. [Like] me on “One Mic,” making a song slow, low-key, raising an octave higher. “Got Yourself A Gun” was a Dr. Dre-sounding track, and I had worked with Dre on music before that. So I kind of had a pass to do a Dre-kind of sound because Dre cosigned our friendship and our collabs.
I feel like that collab [with Dre] brought in the idea, maybe, for things like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Biggie together. I didn’t invent it, but it made it more of a thing, like, “Hey guys, we’re always so standoffish. You come into my market, I come into your market, and let’s have fun. It’s all a family thing.”
How do you rank your discography at this point? Does this run of three King’s Disease albums and Magic compare with Illmatic, It Was Written, Stillmatic, and God’s Son?
I don’t really know. I’m working to just see what comes out so that 10 years from now, I can look back and have that answer.
What makes a project a success to you today? You don’t care about the sales numbers the same way you used to, I’m assuming.
Sure we do. All records sell. If they don’t sell at all, then get out of the music business. Or if you love your art, don’t let that determine anything. If you need them to sell too quickly, you gotta watch that. lllmatic wasn’t the huge seller the first week, but now you look at how well it did. You just have to worry about the music. We dropped Magic on Christmas Eve and outsold people that’s 20 years younger than me, the first week. That’s scary. I didn’t expect to sell that. So did I celebrate that? No. Did I look at that as a measurement as to what I’m doing, what it means? No. It’s just, “Oh, that’s funny. Moving on.”