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Nas, ‘Life Is Good’ (Def Jam)

Nas / Kevin Winter/Getty
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: July 17, 2012
Label: Def Jam

Last month, a brief documentary surfaced on YouTube detailing the creation of a Nas-funded animatronic Jay-Z — this was during the height of the Jigga vs. Esco beef — which he intended to hang in effigy at Summer Jam 2002. Thankfully, he scrapped the Jay-Bot, but the fact that Nas pursued this idea almost to fruition is a testament to just how far one of the best rappers of all time is willing to take some of his worst ideas. Put “remote-controlled, life-size recreation of Jay-Z” at the top of a list that also includes his song written from the point of view of a gun, the other one where he raps in an Edward G. Robinson voice, the other one about aliens, the terrible album title Stillmatic (plus the pigeon on the album cover), and the back-to-back low-concept punch of Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled.

Nas’ tenth album, Life Is Good, introduces his next heady, potentially bad idea: rap for the 40-and-over crowd. Nasty Nas, this is not. More like Humbled Nas, aware that even his most devoted fans have begun to regard him as aged-out. So he makes an end-run around his massive reputation, just living instead of trying to live up to his unimpeachable debut. The production here, almost entirely from No I.D. and Salaam Remi, shuffles between orchestrated, pleasant-sounding boom-bap (most effectively on the electric “A Queens Story”) and female-vocal-assisted rap’n’bullshit that invokes quiet-storm R&B and old-school hip-hop. In short, music for grown folks.

The lyrics, however, constantly remind nostalgics that the good ol’ days were often chaotic and desperate. Throwback track “Loco-Motive,” featuring Large Professor, finds Nas inhabiting his two-decades-old, fleeting-street-kid mentality: “Blunt big as a dread, I get high and forget who bled / Who we stomp-kicked in the head.” Almost defying his own realness, he later raps, “I been rich longer than I been broke, I confess.” Then, towards the end of “Loco-Motive,” he jokingly shouts, “This for my trapped-in-the-’90s niggas,” making it clear he doesn’t fall into that category. When Amy Winehouse appears on “Cherry Wine,” a proper collaboration only now seeing its first release after the singer’s death — turning a feature into a tribute — Nas delivers a chilling reminder that being young, wild, and free often has dire consequences.

His own present-day situation gives him even more pause. On the opener, “No Introduction,” he confides more than boasts: “Brazilian women on Xannies, they pulling off panties / I’m pushing 40, she only 21,” and then soberly adds, “Don’t applaud me / I’m exhausted, G.” With “Daughters,” he confronts the reality that his kid has got her own mind (and lady parts), which makes him feel old and weird, and like he could’ve maybe done a better job raising her. “Bye Baby” is a tender send-off to ex-wife Kelis; the album’s cover art, featuring Nas with her honest-to-god wedding dress draped over his knee, hints at a bitter tell-all album, but he’s actually magnanimous here.

Life Is Good‘s two flirtations with 2012 hip-hop cleverly feed the rap-radio beast while simultaneously dismantling today’s trends. “Accident Murderers,” with its invective against corner kids contriving their reps, includes a guest verse from street rap superstar of the moment Rick Ross — cleverly cast, whether he realizes it or not, as a grunting gangsta building his status on lies. “Summer on Smash,” produced by Swizz Beatz and featuring Miguel, is the conspicuous single, but on an album in which our hero is “exhausted,” its appearance has a subversive quality, as if Nas is knowingly drinking and partying his way through a song-length mid-life crisis. He’ll get back to being an adult in a moment.

This is the instructive grown-ass-man rap that Jay-Z promised on The Blueprint 3 when he told kids “carrying a strap” wasn’t “cool,” but quickly abandoned that approach to trend-hop with Kanye, Drake, and Kid Cudi. As usual, Nas digs down and sees this “dad rap” concept all the way through. But this time, he’s hammered his half-baked idea into a successful, thematic collection of songs. When Illmatic was released, Nas was 20. He seemed shockingly wise beyond his years. But for much of his wobbly career since, he’s been content to stay in a smart-for-a-youngster mindset, long after he’d ceased to be a youngster. On Life Is Good, an album about change and trying hard to feel comfortable in your own increasingly wrinkly skin, he’s finally reached an age he’s capable of acting.