You gotta give Nas points for trying. After a year in which he caught flak from Bill O’Reilly for participating in a benefit, saw his nemesis turned label boss Jay-Z leave Def Jam, and shot a failed reality show with his wife Kelis, the 34-year-old Nasir Jones lost his long, contentious struggle to name his ninth album Nigger, replacing the title at the last minute. Presiding over a listening session at New York’s Electric Lady studios, he’s insistent that the controversy and its anticlimax were never intended to be a Molotov cocktail thrown for publicity’s sake, but rather a creative rebirth from one of hip-hop’s most consistent artists.
Why did you wait so long to change the album title if you knew it was going to be a problem?
It was a matter of deciding between changing the name or skipping the major retail outlets I knew wouldn’t carry the record and just selling it through my website and stores that had balls. [Def Jam chairman] L.A. Reid and I had a conversation — I enlightened him and he enlightened me, and he was with me. But I want as many people as possible to hear this, and it was going to be a messy battle that was going to distract from what the album had to say.
You’ve drawn heat from some older black leaders for the title. Does that surprise you at all?
It’s a concept album about the word and what lies behind it. I don’t want any respectable member of the black leadership to kidnap me and shoot me. A lot of people from that generation have achieved things and moved on, but I’m still on the grind, going through a lot of shit, and I express it. But a lot of our elders never want to deal with that. I understand, it’s hard. I called the record Nigger, with the “er,” to create a dialogue. You can’t just say, “Why are rappers using this word?” You gotta stick around to find out.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly denounced your participation in a memorial concert at Virginia Tech as an “insult to the victims” of the shootings in 2007. You made a song about your feud with him.
You refer to MySpace and the New York Post in that song. It sounds like you did some fact-checking on Rupert Murdoch’s corporate holdings. Was thata matter of knowing thy enemy?
Yeah, if you’re gonna get into it with Fox News, then you gotta know about who owns it. Rupert Murdoch is a great business guy, and some of his shows are entertaining as hell.
Cops. I couldn’t believe an educated person — I checked up on O’Reilly’s schooling-would be so stupid.
There’s a line in “Sly Fox” about how Fox News makes you want to donate to PBS.
I love PBS! I grew up on it. If I had to say which channels were good, I’d say, you got your PBS, your History Channel, your Discovery.
Has all of this made you more politically active?
I’m just little me, an American who wants to see his country do better. I’ve turned off since the  election was stolen — who knows what’s going on anymore? But I’ve gotta admit, this campaign has got me paying a lot more attention. I can’t give a million dollars or anything, but I feel like Barack’s the man.
Does hip-hop have a responsibility to be politically active?
We have the right to not give a fuck. Hip-hop was invented because politicians didn’t give a fuck about the streets. So why should the streets give a fuck back? They did us a favor by wanting us eliminated, because what came out of that was some crazy-ass music that’s helped out tons of people. You’ve got people chilling on yachts in Hawaii instead of in a jail cell because of hip-hop. I like the way hip-hop is now. It’s grown up enough so that it can get involved with politics if it feels like it. But a responsibility? Hell, no.
Speaking of rappers on boats, what do you think about Jay-Z leaving Def Jam?
It was disappointing, because the industry didn’t seem to be able to accommodate him with whatever he needed to grow. The industry is in a real strange place, and homey did what he had to do.
Jay is pursuing interests outside of hip-hop, while you’ve stayed more or less dedicated to music.
To me, creatively challenging myself is my version of owning the Nets.
You did film a reality show for MTV with Kelis, though. How come that never aired?
We watched two episodes and hated it. It was boring. We were too guarded. We weren’t ready. I’m comfortable keeping all the reality in my music.