With ‘Life Is Good,’ Nas Is Great Again

“Nas lost.”

That was the refrain rumbling throughout the rap Internet for much of the last decade. It was a reference to the after-effects of the Summer Slam at Summer Jam, when Jay-Z and Nas’ war went public. Jay-Z did you-know-what with you-know-who. Nas made “ether” the best blog-popularized verb until “Fanute.” And hundreds of thousands of otherwise sane men and woman argued about whether one needed a mustache to be properly suave. Their findings were largely inconclusive.

When large groups of people bicker over the respective merits of two unquestionably great talents, they’re really arguing about archetypes. On paper, Nas and Jay-Z seemed identical: Two New York rappers with famous R&B singer wives, Horatio Alger narratives and close ties to the Notorious B.I.G, the dead king.

“Jay-Z is fun. Jay-Z goes to yacht parties. Nas is invited, but he spends the party wondering how much the champagne cost and the level of corruption that afforded everyone the opportunity to enjoy such luxuries.”

But behind the aviator lenses, they couldn’t have been any more different. Nas was God’s son, the child prodigy blessed by Rakim and told to protect the temple armed with only a pen, a pad, and a 40. His debut dynamited the East Coast then amidst a cyclical search for a savior. The Source gave it 5 Mics; it’s widely called the best rap album ever and every one of his albums since has had to unfairly grapple with post-Illmatic stress syndrome. Nas is aloof, cerebral, opinionated, and he’s never been comfortable with fame, money, or catering to radio programmers. He was too good, too soon, to ever truly give a fuck.

Jay-Z once wrote a song called “You Must Love Me.” Until he landed a fluke hit with Foxy Brown, he was already halfway to obscurity. Then he sampled Annie and well, you’ve heard the rest. The guy owns the Nets, gets called the Black Frank Sinatra with a straight face, and goes to Grizzly Bear concerts. He’s a cool guy and even if you don’t like his new necktie, don’t worry, he’ll be onto the next one soon.

The pair embody classic conflicts of art vs. commerce, underground vs. mainstream, adapting to the whims of popular fortune vs. braying that hip hop is dead. Even their spouses couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. One of them is the All-American Golden Girl who gave single ladies marital advice that sounded like it was scripted by DeBeers. Meanwhile, Kelis’ introduction to the world was a song that screamed, “I hate you so much right now!”

But Nas lost. I’m not talking about who won the battle between him and Jay-Z. That doesn’t matter any more — if it ever did. If both aren’t in your all-time Top 10 then you’re doing it wrong. No, Nas lost the way that normal people lose at life. He had money stolen through careless business deals. He owed money to the IRS. He got divorced. He dealt with the temporary insanity of a teenaged daughter. His mother passed. He made some mediocre albums. But he survived. More importantly, the carnage allowed him to reclaim his soul.

Soul is a four-letter word for good reason. Its invocation inevitably conjures images of angels, dull liturgy, and Cee-Lo at his winged worst. Musicians might not need it to be great, but artists do. The most superficial comparisons for Life is Good come from rock and R&B, genres with a more sizable chunk of divorce opuses. You could compare it to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. But those seething antecedents are far different from Nas’ tenth solo album. “Bye Baby” is the only song explicitly written about his marriage. While “No Introduction,” offers outright love to his ex-wife.

Nas and Kelis host a dinner for 'Hip Hop Is Dead' in New York City. Photo: M Szwajkos

If anything, Nas’ renaissance reminds me most of Neil Young in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — the Harvest Moon era that unleashed his third wave of artistic vitality. It followed a period that Young described as having “My soul … completely encased. I didn’t even consider that I would need a soul to play my music. That’s when I shut the door on pain, I shut the door on my music. That’s what I did. And that’s how people get old.”

If you listened to Nas’ cranky last two albums Hip Hop is Dead and Untitled, the Queensbridge native seemed prematurely ancient and embittered. The role call of semi-retired 90s rappers that was “Where Are They Know,” may be the closest rap ever gets to Abe Simpson screaming “We Want Matlock.” (RIP Andy G).

But where he was once enraged, Nas now feels empathy. “Daughters” grapples with the lack of discipline that often accompanies being a cool parent. He sagely considers the paradox of players bearing daughters and hypocritically lying in wait with a shotgun for younger players trying to scheme on said teenage daughters. “No Introduction” finds him naked with a 21-year old Brazilian girl. Rather than glorify it (as he’s often done in the past), he retreats and tells the listener not to applaud. He’s pushing 40 and she’s only four years older than his daughter. He’s exhausted but struggling with temptation, doomed to repeat the sins of his father. Rarely has he felt realer.

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