Listening to Nas' Life Is Good is like dropping a golden subway token into a mechanical turnstile, one that grants you instant entry into a New York City of days long gone.
A product of the gritty Queensbridge Houses, Nas navigates his borough in dizzyingly poetic detail, shouting out 'hood-famous hustlers and incense-burning Five-Percenters over a bed of rich horns and pounding knocks. "Colosseum downstairs, gold-teeth mouth," the baby-faced 39-year-old spits on "A Queens Story," giving a nod to the mall on Jamaica Avenue and 165th Street where a basement throbbed with jewelers and hair-extension purveyors.
If that sounds like golden-era nostalgia, then fair enough, but as God's Son told us when we sat down with him in L.A. for MTV's Hip-Hop Music Preview, "I got jazz in my soul." On Life Is Good, Nasty Nas tapped those blues for a reverie on his rise but also an honest dissection of his failed marriage and his shortcomings as a father, extending the narrative to his instant-classic album cover (sigh every time we see that green wedding dress). Still, the MC scored a #1 album this week, 20 years after recording his game-changing Illmatic debut.
We'd say life is good, and Nasir explains why, in his own words.
The Title: Life Is Good
"A couple of years ago, I just started to really appreciate the opportunities that I've had, the places that I've traveled and the people I met and just the life that God gave me. So I felt like 'life is good' was a positive message that we should just say to each other during such challenging times. Just have to remember the important things, you know?"
The Album Cover
"I feel like album covers used to be just as important as the music. And to me, I'm still that kind of dude, like, I still feel like if you can come up with something cool for your album cover that makes the whole package more beautiful. The album cover, of course, you see what's going on there: just love of life and appreciation of where I've come from and where I've been.
"On my first album, I said "life's a bitch," now I'm saying 'life is good.' That just shows you my journey has been peaks and valleys, ups and downs, obstacles, fun, all kinds of things that brought me to this place."
The Recording Process
"This record was just me appreciating the people who listen to me for all these years and just understanding that it could've went a different route. I could be someone who don't love the music no more. For this record, my appreciation for the music is there."
The Cinematic Influence
"The scene in 'Godfather II' was at the end when Michael Corleone was sitting on his property after all the executive decisions he had to make. He's sitting on his property just thinking.
"Bye Baby": "That was a song that had to be done. It gets into my relationship that I had [with ex-wife Kelis] and why did things go wrong. You know, certain people just hit that point where they need to take a break or they need to move on separate ways. So 'Bye Bye' is a record that has that story line, from beginning to end. With life, you take [it] there's wins, there's losses, there's bad, there's joy, pain, all the emotions ... life is still good, no matter what, you have to keep your head up."
The Five-Word Description
"Hip-hop, jazz, it's personal, love, it's a great sound put together by No I.D. and Salaam Remi and myself; it's all good.
"A lot of producers that I like, they sample a lot of jazz. They are inspired by jazz, so a lot of their music comes out that way. So a lot of the stuff I rapped on sounds like jazz. I was talking to Sting one time and he had heard Illmatic — someone played it for him — and he said, 'It's a jazz album!' I love that he said that because I got jazz in my soul."
Check in with MTV News all this week for our Hip-Hop Music Preview, when rap's biggest names give you an in-depth look at some of the year's most anticipated albums. Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #MTVHipHopPreview!