Words by Tam Vo
Photography by Aaron Smith

Whose world is this
The world is yours, the world is yours
It’s mine; it’s mine; it’s mine; whose world is this
It’s yours

—Nas, “The World Is Yours”

I am driving to the rapper Nas’ house in the Hollywood Hills on a random Thursday so we can photograph him and talk with him while he gets his hair cut. My brain can’t think of any opening sentence other than this very factual one. April 19, 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of Illmatic, Nas’ debut album. It’s an album that details his experiences growing up in Queensbridge, New York. An entire coast away, I associate his album with growing up in Downey, a city east of Los Angeles near Long Beach that only locals have heard of. There’s no doubt that countless other listeners and fans grew up with Nas’ music in the very same fashion. We all dreamed of leaving our neighborhoods for something else, something better, but slowly realized as we grew up that our neighborhoods never really left us.

My photographer, videographer and I arrive at the same time and are ushered in through the gate. We immediately take our shoes off since we notice pairs of shoes neatly lined up in the entryway, and I thank God I’m wearing clean socks today. We take in the surroundings and figure out where the best light is. There’s a life-size Star Wars Stormtrooper suit in a corner and vintage arcade games nestled together on the far side of the room. Nas is busy talking business on the phone at the kitchen table, which is situated in an elevated stone dining area above the living room and makes him kind of look like a judge presiding over a very serious court. The barber, John Mosley, who has driven up at the last-minute request of Nas’ regular barber Marcus (who couldn’t make it today), calmly unpacks his kit and locates the nearest electrical outlets.

Nas finishes his phone call and introduces himself. We all take our positions and get started, whether it’s cutting, shooting, recording or typing. I try a chair at first, but ultimately sit down down on the floor in front of Nas, cross-legged as if I were back in kindergarten and readying myself for Story Time with my classmates. He’s perched on a stool with the barber cape draped around his neck, asking John to “use the razor on the front and the beard, not on the back or underneath the chin or neck. I don’t have sideburns but if you can, make a line of them as thick as they can be, as long as they can be. Watch the corners.”

He measures his words carefully, speaks softly but commandingly, and thinks hard before answering questions. Nas directs John the barber. “With my mustache and beard, I don’t leave a lot of space in here, so I kind of just shape it up. I grow it up here, across, slimmed down here, but no crazy space in the upper lip. Keep it natural, but give it a line. I don’t want a skinny top. Natural.”

I’m trying to keep it natural, too. As natural as it can be on a random Thursday at Nas’ house, watching him get his hair cut.

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Queens’ Finest

Bevel Code: Tell us about the origins of your half-moon part, which is one of your signature styles. Was it intentional or a lucky accident?

NAS: Sometimes if I wear it one way too long, I get bored and I need to freshen up. The half-moon, that’s a hairstyle that’s been around forever, particularly the ‘80s—that’s when I saw first saw it. The neighborhood barber on my block, this guy named Leroy, he’d cut everybody’s hair; he just had a street style to him that was more street, more with the times than the rest of the barbers in the neighborhood at the time. This was the mid to late ’80s, early ‘90s, and he used to give me the half-moon part. The best half-moon part I ever had was during those times, probably.

BC: What was your earliest teenage memory of figuring out your personal style, and did you make any missteps?

Nas: You know what, many years ago, a friend of mine woke up one day and just knew how to cut hair. So we was going to his apartment—he lived on the next block from me in Queens—we were teenagers, and we went to get cuts from him so much because, as you can imagine, haircuts were hard to come by because the whole neighborhood is waiting to see one barber (Leroy at the time).

You have to make an appointment, which would take forever, and you’d have to wait for everybody. So around this time, my friend Wiz just knew how to cut hair. We were going to his apartment so much that his mom made him start charging us. We were mad at that, but you know, it was better than waiting and trying to catch Leroy. Wiz was good, but eventually, Wiz started feeling himself for cutting hair and we was trying to take advantage, and he didn’t want to hear it. One day, as magically as his talent appeared, it disappeared. It’s funny like that.

BC: When did you learn how to shave? What are some of the trials and tribulations you faced in the evolution of your grooming routine?

Nas: Oh man, I shaved. I wanted a mustache and I had peach fuzz. I heard that the peach fuzz would grow back thicker, so I was shaving early. It didn’t work the way I thought it would; it took a few years, but the mustache started to show around 18. I think I started to see something, maybe around 17. Yeah, I started to see a little something but really around age 18, 19 is when it came in.

Razor bumps were the biggest thing—like on the back of my neck, I noticed them. After awhile a lot of people I saw in the neighborhood was having razor bumps. First I thought razor bumps were some contagious disease and we wanted the barbers to soak their clippers more. Thought it was hygiene or whatever. Turns out it was just the way the hair is on black skin. It curls. Then I started to make sure I didn’t use a razor on the back of my neck because it cut too close; there was no need for that.

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The Genesis

One of Nas’ greatest strengths as an artist is his ability to weave a complete story from start to finish. Blending high and low culture, literary and musical and political and pop culture allusions, the narrative structure of his work shows a social and intellectual awareness that not all MCs possess on top of a mastery of beat and flow. One thing you may not know is that Nas is a big comic book fan who wrote and drew his own comics while growing up. It was time to get Nas’ origin story, the part of the storyline where we find out how our hero gets his superpowers and truly claims his identity.

BC: Please tell me about the stories and comic books you used to create during your childhood.

Nas: You know, the whole comic book thing was huge to me when I was young. Before I knew it, I had like the whole collection of Marvel, DC and other comics. I’m a big Stan Lee fan, I used to draw and trace the characters and take those characters to make my own comic books.

BC: With social media and digital platforms, everyone can potentially tell their story now. What kind of stories are you drawn to?

Nas: I like to hear about people’s humble stories, the beginning of success stories. It gives you the root of the truth, the beautiful tree. I like to see the root of it, and then after that, I like to find out about the challenges that that one had to face.

BC: Like a comic book origin story.

Nas: [laughs] Yeah, like that.

BC: Is there anyone whose story fascinates you right now? Who would you want to have a long conversation with?

Nas: Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. There are not many Berry Gordys in the history of music—a guy who comes from Detroit and a super industrial era, when American car makers’ time was still in Detroit. This guy went a different route, and into music sales and music copy. I’d love to talk to him. Also I’d love to talk to…can we come back to this question in a bit?

BC: Sure. Who do feel is really expanding the language of street culture and pushing culture forward in the world, especially with the “tanning of America” lately (as more and more people reference black and minority culture)?

Nas: An interesting artist named JR who takes pictures of citizens in their places, usually poor places, pictures of people who usually seem old, whose stories you aren’t familiar with, you don’t know anything about, but they are important stories nonetheless.

He takes their photo, makes them larger, and pastes it in the community they are from, the ones where they spent their lives in, like Cuba. A place where you’d normally just see Fidel, Che and maybe Fidel’s brother, you don’t see too many pictures of anybody else. He takes the pictures of people in Cuba and puts them up on buildings. I think that’s cool because it goes to say that everybody’s important; he’s done this in Brazil and a few other places.

BC: How can someone believe that their story is worth telling?

Nas: Just by survival. If you survive, you live to tell your own story. Even though legends are often told by people who didn’t live them. If you can just survive, you can do it yourself. Maybe someday, you’ll live to tell your story.

I do believe that everybody has a story worth hearing. I don’t know how everyone’s story can be heard; the Internet is perhaps the only thing, the only new serious thing on a large scale, to get people’s stories out there.

BC: What would your superpower be?

Nas: My superpower is to just kind of see in the future. I think we can all do that. It’s not that special—we can all see the future. And that’s what worked out for me. I know where I want to go but I may not know what to do to get myself there, but I might wind up there anyway. It’s because I wanted to get there, and the brain doesn’t forget so you know…I just always know how to look in the future and see ahead. I think my brother’s like that, too. But maybe it is a special talent.

BC: Do you ever get stuck in the past?

Nas: I get stuck in the past, I do. But what makes it a superpower is that when I stuck in the past, without me even trying, the future pops up in my head and things happen.

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Carry On Tradition

BC: What’s your approach as a parent? Do you hope your daughter and son will follow a musical path or something else?

Nas: Yeah, I think they have their own things to offer, whether it’s passed down by me or their grandparents or great-grandparents—they have something fresh and new to offer. We just played around, you know, listening to music. We dance to music together.

BC: Your song “Daughters” is so relevant to the way social media has deeply affected teenagers, especially young girls and the way they grow up today. What kind of advice would you give your own daughter and young women trying to figure out their identity?

Nas: On my last checkup, I met a cool 90-year-old man, and we struck up a short conversation. One thing he told me was, “In life, you always need to have self-respect.” And that was one of the first things he said, and I think that is important for women, men, girls and boys, but when you talk about girls, they should always have self-respect—that’s key. That’s number one.

Even if there’s not a father around to teach them, they have a father.

Nothing comes easy to nobody in this world, so if they’re without that father, they should just imagine one being there—imagine a good one who only wants to see the best in them. And just for themselves, they should want to see the best in themselves and not carry on like everybody else.

Everybody else is not gonna have the talent and skill of Madonna to convey messages the way she does in her way, so everyone can’t follow Madonna. You can admire her from afar, but Madonna can admire you too, for what you do on your own and what you do in your own original way.

BC: What will you tell your daughter Destiny if a boy hurts her or breaks her heart?

Nas: I’d say, “You’ll live, trust me. Look at it as an experience you needed and it makes you stronger. Someday you’ll look at this person later and you won’t believe you even spent 24 hours thinking about this person, later on in life.”

BC: What’s one thing you would tell your younger self, if you could go back in time, “Back to the Future”style? Say you have a DeLorean and everything.

Nas: If I could hop into a DeLorean right now, I’d hop to my old neighborhood and go back to show them that I have a future car. That’s the past, right? Like, “Hey everybody, look! I have a future car!”

I’d go back to the ’60s and hear a Malcolm X speech. I’d want to shake Adam Clayton Powell’s hand, and I’d go to Woodstock. I’d tell myself to not go to certain places where things happen, where people got hurt, stupid things like that. I wouldn’t really want to hurt myself going back anywhere.

BC: How do you get creatively unstuck, if that’s ever an issue for you as an artist? What keeps you going between the epiphany moments where everything flows so naturally?

Nas: I hit a point where I’m done, and I walk away from it. I come back because when it’s flowing it’s flowing and there’s no problems when it’s flowing. So when it’s not flowing, I don’t stress—it’s just not flowing. But you’d be surprised if you don’t walk away sometimes [and stay]; you can’t walk away all the time.

BC: Sometimes you have to stay and push through. There’s a Picasso quote that goes something like this: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Nas: That’s right. That’s a good one.

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Make the World Go Round

Lately, Nas has been getting his investment game on by funding a diverse mix of startups alongside some of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most influential VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz. He lends some of these startups his street cred, but he also gives them honest feedback about their product. Nas is very frank when telling me what he really thinks of different companies and products currently out there, and how he feels technology is playing a role in changing the world. Also, he has some thoughts on Snowden.

[Disclosure: Nas is a current investor in Bevel, Rap Genius, Crowdtilt, and Fancy, among other startups, through Andreessen Horowitz and other firms.]

BC: What are you looking for when researching a startup, that elusive “It” factor that makes you decide to partner or invest? What do they all need to have in order to get your nod of approval?

Nas: They need to have that cool factor, that new “need it, it’s that thing that we need” feeling that makes you go, “Yeah, I want that. I need that. Yeah, what’s that?”

BC: Like what?

Nas:

I look for things that make me wish I had invented them myself. Like Bevel. I wish I’d invented Twitter, too.

BC: What are some brands that impress you?

Nas: Crowdtilt, the Fancy—those things feel personal, they feel close to you. They’re fun. Those are fun things that nobody’s pushing it on you; they don’t have to. They’re just things that are good.

BC: You invested in Rap Genius. What do you make of the attention and infamy they’ve gotten because of their uncensored approach to everything? Would you tell them to calm down?

Nas: They’re some wild guys. They’ve been getting in a lot of trouble because they actually live truly like rap is. They do as rap does. They are 100% devout Rap-ians, and they are as wild as can be and I can’t keep up with what’s going with them because they’re wilder than I am. They’re younger than me, also.

BC: Who are some of the leaders that you’d like to meet and have half an hour with?

Nas: I’d love to meet [Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos. He’s just an ahead-of-the-game kinda guy. I’d also like to talk to the female President of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff] and also the female President of Liberia [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf]. A female president is a super cool idea, and I would love to just talk to one of them. It’s one of the things I see making a lot of noise today and something that interests me.

BC: What advice would you give to other artists and creative types who want to be strategic about getting into the entrepreneurial, business and investing worlds?

Nas: Things don’t just come to you in business—everybody’s not that lucky. So even when you’re doing your art thing, you have to fight and see that it’s placed in the right way so it gets respect. If you’re in business and your product is official you have to fight hard for three things: 1) for it to be acknowledged, 2) to make money, and 3) to stay #1.

It’s a constant fight and you have to be prepared for that challenge, even if you don’t want to. You have to be out there to make sure your brand is represented the right way. So whether you like it or not, if people love it and it has mass appeal, there’s money to be made off it—whether they rip your idea or the money comes directly to your brand. It is what it is, it’s gonna happen. You have to manage it.

It’s a pain in the ass, but nothing in life is easy. You just really have to believe that you can handle the business of it. It starts with you; it all starts with you and what you believe. If you believe it, someone else will.

BC: What’s the perfect pitch? Sometimes you literally have 2 minutes to pitch someone in between meetings or randomly in an elevator.

Nas: I think your pitch has to be everything. You have to make the buyer/investor believe what he didn’t know. Someone told me the other day, “Make me want what I didn’t know I wanted” and I think that applies to the pitch person. If you know this is your one chance, you have to get on the dot.

There’s the other side to it that says a good product sells itself, so you don’t wanna just jump out at somebody and force it down their throats; you have to have a style about it and certain people can pick up on that energy. But if you only have five minutes, who knows if they’ll feel that energy?

So you have to become kind of aggressive and really smart and really clear, and show me, give me a reason why this will work. Let me feel like you just made me smarter, if I’m an investor. That I’m lucky to have met you because you are about to change the world.

BC: Who’s the changing the world right now?

Nas: Let’s start with the President. The President of the United States. Computer scientists everywhere. And every kid born every day.

BC: Speaking of computer science—what are your thoughts on Edward Snowden and the CIA/NSA security leaks and intelligence-gathering business?

Nas: It makes you think how bad it could have been, how worse it could have been. Could it have been even worse? Are we lucky that it is not worse than what it’s done? How many more Snowdens are out there? Why wasn’t there more? We’re really lucky and a great country, because there’s only been that one incident at that level that’s recent, so you gotta think, something like that’s gonna happen, gotta happen.

I’m just glad it wasn’t worse and hope it doesn’t get worse. If he’s someone that is out for a positive change, then more power to him. If he’s trying to make this country better, if his goal is truly, in his own, weird crazy way, to bring something positive to all of America and all of the word, then all power to him.

BC: How can a brand stay real to an audience, especially given how marketers can pigeonhole people these days? How do you not sell out your vision and stay true despite the pressure to make money?

Nas: They have to have the people’s trust in your heart. You have to put that in the right place, you have to have the people whose well-being is in your heart at the end of the day, no matter who you are.

You have to care about people first. No matter how big a company you are or how smart you are or how smart you think you are, the part that matters is if you’re contributing something great to the world, you should think about your fellow man and his well-being at the end of the day. And not be selfish in no form or fashion.

Stay Dreamin’ Stay Schemin’

By this point in the conversation, I am shamelessly asking Nas for life, love and career advice because something in his voice has changed. The mood has shifted. Maybe the turning point occurred when he seemed to size me up for a few silent seconds and exclaims, “You really did your homework!” when he realizes I know the exact birthdates and ages of his children. Or maybe it was the fact that his haircut was over and he no longer had to talk over the electric buzz of the clippers and he felt more comfortable knowing that moving around and speaking loudly and gesturing with his hands wouldn’t result in lopping off his mustache by accident.

BC: In a world that is becoming increasingly divided over money and power, does someone with a poorer background not get discouraged? If you grew up as a Have-Not, how do you not resent the Haves?

Nas: That’s a rough one, because life is about tests and at some point, you do need to focus on you. And you know, it all depends, man, it’s like…you have the Haves and the Have-Nots and then you have this road like a racetrack and a finish line. The Haves/Have-Nots are on different levels but it’s the same racetrack; we’re all trying to get to the finish line and win. So that’s where it gets rough—that racetrack is rough.

And even for the ones, the Haves who beat the Have-Not in a lot of times and most cases, once they win and beat them, there’s a whole other level of tests. The Have-Nots have to prepare for those tests, too.

It all balances out—life balances out for everyone, whether you like it or not, in everybody’s favor. It’s a lot harder for the Have-Nots in a lot of cases, but at the end of the day, it’s a test that nobody’s exempt from, one that we all gotta pass. Multiple tests. So you can’t, if you’re a Have-Not…you can’t wallow in your sorrow. You gotta get up and go.

BC: In 2013, you were honored by Harvard University when they established a hip-hop fellowship in your name. How do you feel about hip-hop rising up from the street level and entering the ivory tower and Ivy League, which seems worlds away to some?

Nas: Years ago, it would have been a great achievement for the art form, of course, but I still thought of Harvard as part of a piece of the establishment that was anti-me. And even though it meant higher education, it didn’t seem welcoming to someone like myself for whatever reasons I had as a young person. I thought what I thought.

Today, I look at things differently. I’m a high school dropout, so the fact that I’m able to assist somebody in going to one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, it just shows you how the Have-Nots can get to the finish line and in that case, anything can happen. You can do anything, anybody here. That’s great to me, because now with Harvard, my family, no one to my knowledge has ever been there. This dropout put Harvard in the family name, so now it’s about how do we make it into something that gets results and we can good come from it? We see people take advantage of it. That’s my plan now—I want to see people take full advantage of it.

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It Was Written

BC: What does your next album mean to you?

Nas: To me, two of the labels I always dreamed about being on—I actually did it. With Columbia Records and Def Jam…Columbia is where I did most of my stuff so far, and Def Jam is the legendary label of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Once I was at Columbia, I threw away dreams of Def Jam, because my dreams already came true. But when I wound up  at Def Jam, I had to pat myself on the back, like, “What can’t you do?” That’s how I felt, like the world is your oyster, you know what I mean?

So now what I feel like, I got this excited feeling about what’s next but there’s a nervousness to it to because I don’t like too much excitement. I like some excitement, I like a good time, I love fun. I’m a fun guy and people who wanna hang out with me always want to hang out with me because I’m a fun motherfucker. But I’m in the grind with everybody else, and I can only deal with so much fun at a time. I don’t even like to think or want to talk about it. I’d rather just do music, and make the songs and just deal with that.

BC: How do you not let your success shift your foundation too much and make you forget where you came from? How do you go to the places you go and see the things that you see and stay grounded?

Nas: Easy, because those places were waiting for me. So where I started, it will always be in my heart and I will go back, even though there’s a part in your mind that you’ll never go back to because you’re not necessarily supposed to. There’s a negative side that you never wanna go back to, but I always go back on the positive side.

So all of the places that I go to now were waiting for me to get there. Because I feel like…call me crazy, but my ancestors were already there. So when I’m in Cannes, France on a yacht with a bunch of rich motherfuckers, I’m trying to connect with my ancestors who already navigated those waters or grew those lands thousands of years ago. So I’m late getting there, but at least I got there. I know that’s crazy but that’s the feeling I have naturally when I go to new places. Sometimes I think I’m a kid who got here from the hood, but my ancestors are spitting on me for saying something so crazy—my ancestors were running through this place doing trading and building it on an architectural level, on a scientific level, so that’s just the truth.

If you look at the migration of the human beings coming from all over the world, wherever they wound up, they were always interacting, always doing those things. So how did someone end up in Italy and Rome and Spain and all these places? Because they’d been traveling. How did things from Europe end up in all these places? Trade. Trade is what the world was all about. So I’m kind of just following the ancestors of the human family and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m just happy that I’m aware that I’m supposed to be going to these places.

BC: How do you know if where you are is where you’re supposed to be? How does one deal with doubt?

Nas: You take it one day at a time, no matter what. You can only do what you can do. And you can’t beat yourself up about what you haven’t achieved at this point or that point—it’s self-defeating. You always have to give yourself time to learn, time to rest, time to process info. You have to give yourself a chance to prepare and then go after it. So again, tests. Life gives you tests. I don’t meant to sound all philosophical and shit, but it’s just the way I see things.

New World

BC: What excites you about the future, with technology changing everything and the next generation growing up with fewer borders and greater access to ideas and information?

Nas: We need to realize that it’s not happening the way we think. It’s not a rate to where we have to be alarmed and make ourselves stay grounded. As exciting as coding is, not many people in the streets give a fuck about it, to be frank. It’s not cool—it’s boring or whatever it is. There are kids in the street who are into it, but more who are not. There are kids in the suburbs into it and those who are not.

It’s not for everybody at this point, so we don’t have too much to really worry about it. Just as we didn’t have to worry about the kids in the ’80s and ’90s changing the world with technology. They seem pretty grounded to me, the young masterminds. They are as cool as they can be. I have faith in them. We grew up in the same world, with the same things. We grew up listening to the same music, watching the same shows. Maybe I watched “Good Times” more than they did, or maybe they were too young.

But for the most part we share this country together, we’re contributing to the country together, and we’re not that far apart.

We’re not really much of strangers; we’re a bunch of cool guys in this melting pot called America. And this new thing that’s happening is great, because the old guard is a bunch of old cowboys who can’t accept change, who can’t accept realities, who can’t accept the great future ahead of us by embracing the melting pot. Those guys—their ways are not dying off soon enough.

BC: How can marginalized groups stand up for themselves in the melting pot? How can women and minorities run the world more?

Nas: Women always have. We don’t pay attention to enough, but women have always run shit. Men are more aggressive physically, that’s our advantage, but it also kind of makes us a little savage.

Women have always been around making major contributions to civilization, so we shouldn’t be so shocked to see women doing good things and being empowered. We shouldn’t be so old-school sexist.

If someone hates on that, it’s their problem. You have to stand up for what you contribute, you have to stand behind it, and you can’t let go. You can’t let down; you have to fight a little harder, but that’s what the world’s about. The world is not as easy for women, Black people, and other groups. It may be easier for one group in one area, but not in another area. We all have bumps in the road, but it’s all about pushing through, no matter who you are or where you are.

BC: Who inspires you the most? What books do you turn to, time and time again?

Nas: Richard Pryor’s autobiography, that’s like my Bible. He’s my biggest inspiration, my number one. James Baldwin, Berry Gordy, Henry Louis Gates. Grandmaster Flash’s book, his autobiography. Ben Horowitz’s book. There is also a book I have about memory, but I can’t remember the title right now. One day I’ll read it.

On The Real

And now, for some really random things we learn about Nas. It is nearly 2 p.m. by this point and I have a tendency to ask food-related questions when my stomach knows it’s way past lunchtime. The final question actually comes from John Mosley, the barber who has just cut Nas’ hair, because I always give credit where credit is due. It’s a deceptively simple question, because you can actually learn a lot about a person and how they see themselves when you ask them what kind of animal they’d be.

BC: What’s in your refrigerator when you raid it late at night?

Nas: Coconut water, Perrier or carrot juice. Cranberry juice, grapes or a turkey sandwich.

BC: Mayo or mustard?

Nas: Both.

BC: What kind of bread?

Nas: French, wheat or croissant.

BC: So you’d say that the turkey sandwich is kind of like your equivalent of Proust’s madeleine? (Novelist Marcel Proust wrote about how the taste of that French cookie triggered involuntary memories of the past and represented so much meaning to him.)

Nas: Definitely. [calls out to his team in the kitchen] Leslie, can I get a turkey sandwich?

BC: What animal would best describe you as a person?

Nas: I would definitely go with the lion, because he doesn’t even hunt. The female does. He’s got other shit to think about. He’s got a lot on his plate, a lot to deal with. Hyenas always coming in, trying to take his shit, other lion prides are trying to take over his shit, so it’s his responsibility is like, up there on the rock. It’s funny that the females are the hunter and really make their whole world go ’round. And he has to deal—he’s like the old wise man. The lion’s whole mane feels like his old beard. I feel like that old soul with the mane.