News

Rolling with the punches, Nas rises to the challenges

Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

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.

Nas

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image