When Nasir “Nas” Jones was 20 years old, he released his 1994 debut album Illmatic, rightfully considered one of the finest albums in the history of rap music.
A confluence of factors contributed to its legendary status, including the fact that it came at a time when hip-hop was blasting its way onto pop radio and that, following the huge success of Dr. Dre’s L.A.-centric The Chronic in 1992, there was a general hunger for an East Coast counterpart. (New York obliged with not only Illmatic, but also the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).)
But even without any sort of context, Nas’s contribution would still be an all-time great — an album of twisty, brooding narratives delivered with the wisdom of a man twice his age and the skill of a master lyrical craftsman. (It also doesn’t hurt that the production on Illmatic is a delightfully icy mix provided by a team of legends including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor.)
Though that album will always (and rightfully) hold its spot in rap history, Nas has spent the subsequent 18 years learning a hard lesson in art (and especially in pop music): Sometimes you have nowhere to go but down. Illmatic was a phenomenon, and ever since then the man behind it has been dropping albums at regular intervals with diminishing returns. A handful of his releases have been in the good-to-great area (2002′s God’s Son and 2008′s Untitled were both especially strong), but he has never managed to return to the heights he managed to hit on Illmatic.
Earlier this week, he released Life Is Good, his 10th solo album and his first since 2008. (He previously released a collaborative album with Damian Marley called Distant Relatives in 2010.) Life Is Good is by no means the worst Nas album (hopefully none of his work will ever manage to eclipse the ineptitude of 1999′s Nastradamus), but it’s also generally unremarkable (the predominant opinion among critics — even those who really like it — seems to be “It certainly sounds like a Nas album!”). Still, that doesn’t seem to be getting in the way of Nas’ continued success; it looks like Life Is Good is going to debut at No. 1 on next week’s Billboard chart, making it the rapper’s sixth such chart-topping debut.
The thing that really stands out on Life Is Good is its exceptionally weird tone. The production is very much of the moment — there’s no dubstep, but this collection of sounds probably wouldn’t have been on the last Nas album (and indeed, they weren’t). It’s a lot of throwback stuff that sounds like a simulacrum of ’90s-era production, which is the predominant sound of hip-hop at the moment.
Meanwhile, the lyrics look almost entirely backwards. There’s a deep wave of nostalgia that runs through Life Is Good, and while a lot of rappers talk about what it was like back in the day, just about every single song on this album recalls something in the past. Some of that is great, but it does create a strange disconnect, as if Nas wants to seem both of the moment (so he can sell records to young people) and as an all-time great (so he can maintain his legacy).
Aging in pop music is tough, and getting old in hip-hop is pretty much impossible. Besides Jay-Z, can you name a rapper over the age of 40 who is still making relevant music? Many of the greats of yesteryear exist as singular firebrands (Public Enemy’s new album is great, but Chuck D is making music for a very small sect of people at this point) or as straight-up nostalgia acts. But there appears to be a secret to making interesting music while aging in hip-hop, and the answer is embedded in Ice Cube’s 2008 album Raw Footage: Stop caring.
Raw Footage is one of the great underrated hip-hop albums of the 21st century. It’s got a handful of banging beats and Cube having some fun with his persona (which, if you recall, shifted from the most dangerous gangsta in America to this guy). It’s strong top-to-bottom, and the key moment comes when Cube admits something the audience is thinking: He totally doesn’t need to rap anymore.
At this point in his career, Cube’s primary source of income probably comes from residuals from Are We There Yet? DVD sales. Rap music probably doesn’t make him very much money, but he does it because it’s in his DNA, and he still has things he’d like to say.
That liberation makes Cube into a much greater artist than he was when he was still primarily a musician — like when he was making desperate bids for relevance on his 1998 album War and Peace Vol. 1 (The War Album). Because he’d been embraced by nü-metal stars like Korn and Limp Bizkit, Cube must have figured he might as well embrace back.
Korn actually appears on an aggro rap-metal fiasco on the album called “F— Dying,” and Cube was a headliner for a leg on the first Family Values Tour.War and Peace is pretty embarrassing; Cube’s version of aggro was always bracingly original, and he sounded ridiculous aping the hate-your-parents angst of suburbia.
But by the time he got to Raw Footage, Cube was much better known as an actor and producer (he also subsequently liberated himself from a record label; everything since 2006′s Laugh Now, Cry Later has come out on his own Lench Mob Records). While he’ll probably never manage to tap into the raw street anger of his N.W.A. work and his early solo albums, Cube became a much freer rapper, and he’s now operating much closer to who he really is now that he isn’t chasing anything.
Nas doesn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit of Cube or Snoop Dogg (another guy whose albums got significantly better once rapping became the ninth most important outlet for him, behind guesting on soap operas and coaching pee-wee football), and he has quite a few bills to pay.
But maybe he just needs to let go, no longer pursue the current sonic landscape, stop chasing the unimpeachable Illmatic, and allow himself to become what he was always meant to be: a keen observer of key issues — race, class, sex, success — that modern rap often ignores in favor of regal fantasies.
It’s entirely possible that the only thing on Nas’ mind is his own legacy. But if he allows himself to look past the idea of living up to something he did 20 years ago, he might just make his own Raw Footage.