July 20, 2012

Doc Zeus rocks Roberto Cavalli/no shirt on/convertible Mazy

I can’t get past that cover. Here is an accomplished man, impeccably tailored with the watch and liquor to match, sequestered in the back room of a lavish night club. He sits lonesome. A green wedding dress has been carefully laid across his lap while he stares off intently into the distance. The phrase, “Life Is Good,” is written in an elegant script below his designer shoes. as if to suggest some bitter irony about the direction his life has gone.

At first glance, it’s a haunting image. But it isn’t the dress that catches my eye. While it might symbolize a doomed relationship in this man’s life, it’s less interesting than the look on hia face. He hasn’t grown jaded and bitter, but there’s obvious regrets bothering him. What’s most striking is the look of acceptance in his eyes. A look of hope. This is a man that has finally found his peace. “Life Is Good.” There’s no irony in the title of this album. Life is genuinely good for Nas.

No matter how accomplished he’s become in the 20 years since “Live At The Barbecue,” the indelible image of Nasir Jones will always be that sour prepubescent face superimposed over the brick and mortar of Queensbridge on the Illmatic cover. Over the years, Nas has released classic albums, warred (and won!) with the Throne, married and divorced a pop singer, sold out, returned to form and released so much confounding, wack and genuinely bizarre material that you could release an ostensible “Worst Of…” compilation that could conceivably be a double album (and depending on how you feel about Street’s Disciple that might have already happened).

He still seems seventeen, though. The kid wrote the magnum opus of hip hop, a portrait of life as a teenage project dweller, when he was 21 and audiences have been loathe to accept him as anything other than the 12 year old who was brazen enough to snuff Jesus Christ. A lesser man could retreat into embittered seclusion like Salinger or become fat and drunken hack like Welles and you wouldn’t necessarily blame him for it. Nas has become neither.

In many ways, Life Is Good is the dramatic counterpoint to his debut album. If Nas had disappeared back into those project buildings after Illmatic, Life Is Good would serve as the perfect bookend to his story twenty years down the road. The album tells a story of a man who has won and lost so many of the life’s little battles that make the damn thing worth living. A real evolution of character can be found here. No longer is he that kid we first met, he’s become a surviving elder statesman of rap, the last ambassador of the Golden Age and most poignantly, a flawed family man.

Unlike Jay-Z, his eternal rival/opposing archetype in rap’s cultural civil wars, Nas has always come across as the most “human” of the pair. He’s a warts-and-all artist seemingly unconcerned with trends, taste or even looking foolish. On one track, he can speak on the difficulties of raising a daughter as an imperfect single father. While on the next, he can brag about bagging twenty-one year old models. The difference is that now has the self-awareness to realize this is not something a thirty-nine year old man should still be doing with his life. What is more important, he knows this is something the public should not be praising a man of his age for doing.

Ostensibly, this is Nas’ entry into the Great American breakup album and he spends a good deal of the running time chronicling his failed, high-profile marriage to R&B singer, Kelis. It is a relationship that meant everything to him and what’s so striking about the album is its lack of bitterness. On the poignant and sober “Bye Baby,” Nas dissects where things went wrong without judgement or any trace of lingering malice. For a marriage that dissolved in a brutal public fashion, Nas seems candid and refreshingly honest about the institution and the woman he had to let go. You can sense a deep love he still holds for the woman but simply knows that it was not meant to last. Emotional catharsis is evident. He even takes time to chastise those men who would criticize him for taking a chance and marrying a woman while not having the courage to marry the mothers of their own children before.

This palpable sense of catharsis seems to drive the rest of the album to greater heights than we have seen from him since his now decade old (!!!) comeback album, Stillmatic. On his last two albums, Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled, Nas seemed to take the cheap route to relevancy choosing to employ shock value and generational antagonism over the concrete imagery that defined his best work. It sounded less like the sage wisdom of an elder as intended and more like the barking of a embittered artist entering the “get off my lawn” phase of his career. Whether, it was from personal epiphany or the wrist pains from writing monthly alimony checks, Nas sounds remarkably rejuvenated now. “The Don,” the album’s furious lead single, finds Nas returning to monkey-flipping rappers in the way that only he can. New flows upon flows upon flows are freshly minted with the depth and intricacy not seen since perhaps… well, you know…

Being a “Nas” album in the truest sense, there will be a few nitpicks for the eternally critical to sift through. The beats while stronger than the last couple of outings are still hit-or-miss depending how much you can stomach multiple doses of Salaam Remi (But hey! At least, Chris Webber is nowhere to be seen! Progress!). Meanwhile, there is a short but predictable run of Def Jam mandated commercial concessions in the middle of the record that could probably earn a quick skip on your iPod if you are so inclined. (“Summer On Smash” is this year’s entry into the “You Owe Me” Memorial ill-advised club banger series of songs that will never be played in an actual club.) They are flaws but they are in no way fatal or compromise the heart of the album. At this point, they are basically tradition. It’s Nas. He’s never going to give you exactly what you want.

Returning to that green dress for a moment. The way it carefully sits on his lap seems to imply that the man is waiting for the return of the love of his life. Not necessarily for Kelis but from the way he raps on “Bye Baby” on that “next go round [he] hopes to pick the truest type and do it all again.” In the end, he hopes there will be somebody new to share this beautiful life with. It’s not only a beautiful sentiment but it’s also a poignant metaphor. Nas’ fans have been waiting for nearly two decades for “Nasty Nas” to return. Perhaps, we should enjoy the ride instead and hope for the next one to come along too.

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