August 10, 2012

Jonah Bromwich made Rick Ross take off his sunglasses for this picture.

So Nas just made one of rap’s first great mature albums.

It’s hard to describe the dull anticipation that “mature” conjures up in connection to rap. At best, mature albums are  showcases for craftsmanship and deft rhyming that don’t stick in your mind unless you give them total attention. More often, they’re tedious and pedantic.

So how did Nas avoid this fate? Simple. Life is Good is gangster as shit.

After all, if there was even one senior in the nursing home that the class clowns would line up to speak with on community service day, it would be the former drug-runner/murderer/ goon raconteur named Nasir. His mind is still sharp and his eyes still radiate intensity.  He is that dude.


Take “No Introduction,” where Nas traces his descent into criminality. “How could I not succumb,” he raps. ‘How could I not partake, fifteen I got a gun, sixteen I robbed a train, licked off a shot for fun, what’s got inside my brain, a hustler’s job ain’t done, til he becomes a king.” It’s epic, a quick and vivid montage showing the origin of an American antihero.

By reflecting on his criminal past, Nas stays true to the character he developed back before Illmatic. This is Nasty, the villain, aged and wise but still down to reminisce on the harder, more exciting times. Nas’s rap avatar still scans as real, because he has allowed his perspective to change as he’s gotten older.

On songs like ”Daughters” and “Back When,” we get that shift in perspective. The gangster as a regretful parent raps “she heard stories of her daddy thuggin, so if her husband is a gangster, can’t be mad, I’ll love him. Never, for her I want better.”

The aging godfather of rap sees “fake” as too complimentary a term for modern rappers: ““To call ’em fake today is hate, real niggers extinct, Pac left me inside a rap world with niggas that wink at other rappers…wouldn’t be surprised if all their rides had federal plates.” Nas, having “visions that are realistic, nothing’s figurative,” “not bragging, he’s just honest,” hates fake rappers more than anything and believes that they’re all akin to government snitches.

This overarching concern with honesty is interesting given Nas’s past relationship with realness.  On his most famous pre-Illmatic verse he embraced cartoonish violence (“when I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin Jesus”). Illmatic was dialed back, observing and detailing the Queensbridge criminal scene rather than be directly involved. When Nas’s second album, It Was Written came out, he was derided for embellishing the realistic scenes of Illmatic with a Mafioso’s life which some said he hadn’t lived.

This part of Nas’s history is reminiscent of Rick Ross, another fantastic rapper who rendered concerns about authenticity obsolete by rapping well and convincingly about a gangster life over  sublime beats. Famously, Ross made his name by throwing out a series of patterned archetypes. “I’m Rick Ross,” he claimed. “I’m Big Meech.” “I’m MC Hammer.” I am a big, huge, drug-hustling, money-enjoying, drank-swirling, lady-slaying hulk. Here are some facts about my life as such.

We love to hear the story, again and again, about how a dude like Rick Ross started winning, and when he’s at his best, he’s emphasizing the contrast between his lifestyle and his background. Take a pair of lines on “Amsterdam,” one of the best songs on the new album God Forgives, I Don’t: “Keys to the city got killers who slither with me, Lamborghini, middle of the ghetto, smoke a fat fifty.” Slither sounds evil, keys to the city connote respectability, the contrast makes for essential listening. That’s a classic Ross trick.

Ross is like a superhero who keeps retelling his origin, coming up with slightly different ways to let us know where he came from and where he is. But now that we’ve seen that ashy to classy transformation, stretched across the cinematic canvas of no fewer than three excellent albums, it’s time for a sequel. Even a boss can’t just keep rebooting. It’s time to delve deeper than deeper than rap.

Another of Ross’s tricks is unveiled and perhaps stretched to its limit in a long stretch of bars on “Sixteen,” on which Ross hitches his identity to a series of big names. Etta James, John Coltrane, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Sammy Davis, ODB and Scottie Pippen are all re-purposed to suit the boss’s purpose. And yet, even with the weight of luminaries brought to bear, Ross ends up bringing very little to the table.

As far as rap is concerned, there’s no substantive difference between fiction and autobiography. But Ross would do well to take Nas’s example and add a level of detail to his (faux) reminisces and reflections on a life of crime.

Fittingly, Nas and Rick Ross each appear on one song on each other’s albums. “Triple Beam Dreams” and “Accident Murderers” are both worthy of discussion but the latter track is most interesting. Here the two rappers who pretend to varying degrees to be gangsters, indict those who “pretend” to be murderers by accusing them of merely being manslaughterers. “Accident murderers, act like you killed on purpose, liars brag you put work in,” Nas raps on the chorus. “You didn’t mean to murk him, your gun’s a virgin.”

As notably ridiculous as that premise is, Nas delivers the kind of verse that makes Life is Good  excellent. He describes the incident of accidental murder with high-intensity pitch-perfection, starting with the gun being cocked back before zooming out to take in the context of the scene, noting that the victim was a good dude who “stays reclusive…side of his mouth toothpick one eyebrow raised” and leading into the chorus with the crescendoing emotion that he conducts so well.

Meanwhile Ross, while he starts off with a great couplet (“we grew up doing graffiti now hollow heads getting heated”), ends up faltering. We hear the items he surrounds himself with (tecs, binoculars, sweatsuits, and wealth) and the icons animating him (Bob Marley at the club) but there’s nothing to pull us in, no storytelling, and no extraordinary details. As compared to Nas, Ross is just a fat, rich man bellowing and blustering to disguise how little he has to say.

That’s all good for now—due to his relatively late-age career start, Ross is still on the near side of having to make anything resembling a “mature album.” For the most part he’s still powered by beats, brawn and sketches of a Mafioso rap boss, living a life of excess and crime, surrounded by luxury and gigantic breasts (including his own). But a couple years down the road, when Ross is forced to expand, will he be able to muster the details of sweaty, criminal, Miami nights? Will he remember every last item in the room from the time that he was forced to murder a ten year old witness? Will he have some stories to tell?

Previously:
Further Rawse

God Forgives, I Don’t: The Menu

When Life is Finally Good: The Rebirth of Nasy Nas

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