It’s easy to get a sense of how the rapper Nas has seen himself over the years by noting his choice of album cover portraits. His first, the 1994 classic “Illmatic,” featured a shot of the lyricist as a 7-year-old against a backdrop of New York housing projects. In the photograph taken by his father, the musician Olu Dara, the young Nasir Jones stares into the camera with a cocksure gaze, as though destiny fills his spirit — and that attitude permeates the record.
Since that introduction, Nas’ image has appeared on each of his following nine solo album covers. He has variously depicted himself as a pharaoh, a sage, a sweat-suited player, a prophet, a man in mourning and a whip-scarred slave.
On his return-to-form 10th solo album, “Life Is Good,” the 38-year-old is seen relaxing on a black leather couch in a sharp white suit, his hand supporting his chin like “The Thinker.” Draped across his lap is a green taffeta dress.
Life is good, indeed, or at least Nas has gotten better at rolling with the punches — and you can hear it in every verse on the 58-minute album, a thoughtful, fierce, honest and — most important — heavy-duty work. The album shows a man not only comfortable in his own skin but also tapped into his muse and willing to tackle the many tough matters he’s endured since his previous, untitled album in 2008.
Specifically, Nas has been through a divorce from pop singer Kelis in 2009 that separated him from their 2-year-old son, a topic he addresses head on in the album’s closer, “Bye Baby.” He’s also tangled with the IRS over millions in unpaid taxes and struggled with watching his daughter from another relationship become a teenager. Although such challenges could drag a man down, Nas has committed to addressing the ins and outs of his life as though that leather couch on the album cover sits in the office of Tony Soprano’s shrink.
Not that he’s lost his swagger. It’s just that, as he raps in the first track, “No Introduction,” “I’m pushing 40, she only 21/Don’t applaud me, I’m exhausted, G.” (It bears noting that the woman who has sapped his energy is only four years older than his daughter.)
“No Introduction,” in fact, is the perfect re-introduction to Nas, and doubters who either gave up on him after a string of hit-and-miss efforts over the past decade, sided with Jay-Z in the competitors’ major round of beefs or never bought into his self-involvement would do well to listen closely as he traces the path of his life through a first-person benediction. “The tales you hear is the truth on me/Who wasn’t the most faithful husband/Reveal my life, you’ll forgive me/You will love me, hate me, judge me, relate to me.”
He follows through on his promise and opens up on not only his personal struggles but also mortality and aging, about shifting priorities and battling reflexes. He looks back as much as he looks forward, and along the way comes to terms with not only the unfaithful husband within himself, but also the confusion that comes with watching his daughter grow into a young woman. On “Daughters,” he raps of feeling protective of her while predatory players — much like himself — close in.
The song captures the essence of the father-daughter relationship: “One day she’s your little princess/Next day she’s talking boy business, what is this?/They say the coolest players and the foulest heartbreakers in the world/God gets us back, he makes us have little girls,” he raps. Later, on “Reach Out,” he climbs another branch on his tree: “When I was young they called me Olu’s son/Now he’s Nas’ father/I was the good seed/He was the wise gardener.”
Musically, Nas and his collaborators have gone vertical, drawing in sounds from throughout hip-hop’s evolution: For as many thrilling modern-day rhythmic loop-the-loops — the solid dub-filled “The Don,” the killer Rick Ross collaboration “Accident Murderer” — there are old-school accents that pepper the record with context and history. This is a record where the scratching on “Reach Out” appears high in the mix, employed as a sonic device to suggest past innocence while singer Mary J. Blige nails the hook.
These aren’t the once “futuristic” beats of producers Scott Storch and Stargate that hobbled Nas in the mid-‘00s, but work that harnesses his boom-bip bass drum-snare combo in the service of busier but no less infectious rhythms. His main collaborator on “Life Is Good” is the consistently dynamic producer No I.D., who has moved from central producer on Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to providing varied beats on five tracks.
Nas also leans on Saleem Remi, whose history with the pop and hip-hop charts stretches back to his work on the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” Nas’ 2002 “Made You Look” and Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own.” Winehouse, in fact, provides a beyond-the-grave hook for Nas’ new track “Cherry Wine.”
This is turning out to be one of the most vibrant and exciting years for hip-hop music in at least a decade, a place where hot young tykes such as Kendrick Lamar, ASAP Rocky and Earl Sweatshirt are competing for the same piece of the pie as veterans like Jay-Z, West, Nas and Killer Mike. In the past, many vets were placed on waivers by major labels who valued youth and hype over style and experience. In the 2012 world of mixtapes and universal access, the crowd defines who’s tired and who’s still got it.
Nas not only still has it, but has vast quantities of it. Luckily for us, he’s still inspired by the need to share — even the moments when life isn’t all that great.