When a teenage Nas opted out of street hustling to chase his musical dream, those around him found it amusing.
"When I chose to get in rap, my friends chose to do other things and not all great things. They chose to be in the streets and kind of laughed at me in a way about taking rap so seriously," said the rapper, who hails from the New York City borough of Queens. "I'm glad I stuck with it because I believed in it from day one."
No one laughs about Nas now. Considered one of music's most celebrated lyricists, he's a top contender at next month's Grammy Awards with four nominations. The 39-year-old rap veteran reached new heights last year with the release of his album "Life Is Good," which made several critics' end-of-the-year lists. It is nominated for best rap album, competing with records by Drake, Rick Ross, The Roots, Lupe Fiasco and 2 Chainz.
"The album was just such a piece that really told you about my life, about my divorce without doing too much, without telling too much," said Nas, whose split with singer Kelis was finalized in 2010.
Nas also gets personal on his album about another woman: his daughter. The song "Daughters," about the struggles of parenting a girl, is up for best rap song and best rap performance; his jam with the late Amy Winehouse, "Cherry Wine," is nominated for best rap/sung collaboration.
He talked about his career, the nominations, his recent tour partner Lauryn Hill and more in an interview.
Q. "Daughters" isn't a typical contemporary rap song. How's it feel to see that one garner attention at the Grammys?
A. I'm really proud of that song. Just writing it, I'm like, "I'm going through something in my life with me and my family," and I don't think about who's going to hear it at that point because it's that personal. ... The fact that it made the final cut of the album; the fact that it became a single was great enough for me. Like, wow. And then to be acknowledged by the Grammys is mind-blowing.
Q. What does your daughter think of the song?
A. I don't know. She never really told me. It was just a thing. She's used to me making music and she's used to me doing things, doing songs that are personal. Never (songs) about her that are so personal, but I think part of her just knows that this was something that was weighing heavy on my heart and I think she gave me a pass for that. I don't think she was always too happy about it. It's different. It's not like she's a fan of it. She's my daughter, so it's a different relationship; a little touchy.
Q. You've been releasing albums since 1991. How are you finding new things to write about?
A. Rule No. 1 is you can't be fake. If you're fake, you become a gimmick and you're selling a gimmick; a little gimmick is cool, this is entertainment. But when you base your stuff on mostly real stuff, you never run out of it because every day is a different adventure.
Q. You recently toured with Lauryn Hill. What was that like?
A. She's almost like someone from a different era. ... She possesses this aura of someone like Roberta Flack, Nina Simone -- it's almost like you're with them, on tour with that person. And sometimes it's even more advanced for the audience; the audience is used to dealing with microwave music, so to have someone like Ms. Lauryn Hill onstage, they might not understand, they haven't seen artists like that before, and I feel like I'm with someone that's like, beyond me.
Q. Will you record music together again?
A. I don't know. I would love to. It's really about sitting down and really cracking into it. She's a real serious artist.
Q. Which albums are the stand outs of 2012?
A. No disrespect to nobody else in rap music, but Kendrick Lamar. I'm really happy about his record. I needed that. His record reaches you. It gives you hope. ... Also, Meek Mill. His energy is amazing.
Q. Are you working on new music now?
A. Yes. It has started. I must tell you. I can't stop now. I'm in a great zone.