An iced coffee with brown sugar is the only request of the legend who spent the previous night indulging in cigars and Moet filled champagne flutes at his release party for his 10th studio album. “You love brown sugar don’t you?” the director of Visual Media at Def Jam jokes, responding to his Starbucks request. “Damn right,” he says with a smile as everyone in the room erupts with laughter. That’s the side of Nas the public rarely gets to see.
Nasir Jones is exactly what you’d expect—no fuss, polite, no big entourage, mellow and somewhat quiet—that is until you get him going on something he actually gives a damn about. By mid-afternoon he arrives to the VH1 office still feeling nice from all of the bubbly consumed at NYC’s Bagatelle the night before. He’s dressed in a white and black t-shirt plastered with Mr. T’s face on it, white shorts and black Gucci sneakers. For a rapper his jewelry is modest. The two gold chains he rocks are far from gaudy, and his wrists are adorned with a gold watch and one bracelet. That’s it. At 38 he doesn’t look much older than he did on 2001′s album cover for Stillmatic. You start to wonder if he physically ages.
Bred in the largest housing projects in North America, the Queensbridge rapper dropped out of school in the ninth grade to pursue rap. Although he didn’t always know if it’d pay off, it did, in a big way.
The No. 1 album Life Is Good comes after a highly publicized divorce from ex-wife Kelis, a nasty battle for spousal support, headlines of him owing back taxes and his daughter’s inappropriate tweets that led to the questioning of his parenting. With all of the speculation about his life, Nas decided to tell his own story in VH1’s Behind the Music. “With my private life being on social media, I got to take control of that,” Nas said. “And that’s what I did with Behind the Music.” Now that the actual music is here, the world gets a more in depth peek into his intricate life as he pours it all out on wax.
Through his masterful storytelling on “A Queens Story,” “Daughters,” and “Bye Baby” he paints a picture of growing up in Queens, the ups and downs of fatherhood and coping with a failed marriage. But it’s “Back When” that he’d choose if he had to pick one song that conveyed what he wanted to get across on this album. “It goes into me reflecting,” he said about the track. “If I say life is good, let me say why. Let me tell you where I come from.” “Back When” is a contrast of the then and now. “The first verse tells you where I come from, and the second verse tells you where I’m at.”
Unlike his last solo album, 2008′s Untitled, which was laced with political and social conscious lyrics, Life Is Good is a reflection of a grown man that has experienced some lows in life and the rap game he’s been in for nearly two decades, but has triumphed to a place of living the good life.
Nas doesn’t own a TV. He reads a lot. Understanding that it’s easy to get why he’s not the artist to put all of his business on Front St. (He said a reality TV show is out of the question despite the never aired reality show he filmed with his ex-wife). But if you’re a longtime Nas listener you know that he’s always rapped about his life, and that sometimes includes moments of vulnerability. As an 80s hip-hop fan he believes the pioneers of hip-hop weren’t allowed to be vulnerable because they had to uphold the image of being a hip-hop superstar. In his music he inspires to give what he wanted as a fan years ago. “After a while we know you the king, we know you this, we know you that, but you have to give us something to make us think,” he said. “I’m giving the people what I wanted from the guys I grew up listening to.”
His honesty about not only life, but the world we live in, can be heard in songs like “Accident Murderers” featuring Rick Ross where he rhymes over an alluring beat about senseless violence, while also slyly calling those who kill or lie about killing lame. It’s tracks like “Accident Murderers” that will most likely have a heavy radio appeal. But it’s the lyrics in “No Introduction,” that Nas fans argue is his best quality as an emcee. “Really what’s in my mind is organizing a billion black motherf——to take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs/And teach the world facts/And give Saudi they oil back.” His ability to paint a picture of knowledge of history, specifically history of blacks in the diaspora, while reaffirming pride in his culture, is what makes him listed as one of the greatest emcees of all time. Unfortunately, it’s also what makes him an artist with a 20 year career, six No. 1 albums, over 13 million records sold, yet no Grammy awards.
“The fact that I’ve not won lots of awards is really a cool thing in a way,” he reflects. “I’m able to sustain and still do what I do without the accolades that everybody else gets, and it makes people like me more. It makes people know that I’m going to always be true.” ‘Like an underdog?’ I ask. “Exactly. I’m probably the most mainstream underground artist in rap,” he said.
But Nas doesn’t aim to make music for the radio. He makes music people can feel. “World’s An Addiction” featuring Anthony Hamilton,“Stay” and “Cherry Wine” featuring Amy Winehouse like most of music invokes some type of feeling. “A radio record is a beautiful thing. A club record is a beautiful thing,” he said. “Do I aim to make those records? No.”
Life Is Good is similar to noteworthy piece of art. You examine it. You discuss its sound and meaning for hours over brunch and unlimited mimosas, which I actually did. You sift through your thoughts on how the album serves as a soundtrack at this moment in your life. Each time you play the record you catch a different double entendre, or visualize a vivid description that you hadn’t before. Aside from “Summer on Smash” produced by Swizz Beats—it’s the one skip worthy song—the album is nearly perfection. XXL gave it the esteemed XXL rating, the magazine’s highest. The last album to be bestowed such an honor was Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
It’s too early to indefinitely say Life Is Good will be held up to the prestige of Illmatic, It Was Written and Stillmatic; although some already claim it has. More importantly than how the record will rank among his catalog, which is arguable anyway, is the fact that Nas, once again, made an album proving why he’s earned his place as a living legend. And more importantly, he made something that was honest, which is what hip-hop should always strive to be.