In a way, it’s a compliment to say that a rapper’s fallen off. To have fallen, you must have once been at the top, and very few people can legitimately claim to have been the best in their profession, even if only for a moment. It also means that the world has high expectations for you, expectations you must have set via some previous work (or works) of genius. For example, it wouldn’t really be accurate to say that….let’s go with... Jibbs fell off. Like so many, he simply appeared and then disappeared.
But Nas? Nasir Jones? Nasty Nas? God’s Son? Escobar? Yes, you could say that Nas had fallen off, or at least tripped. While his talent has remained a constant over the nearly two decades since he dropped his classic debut album Illmatic, his focus has sometimes strayed. I don’t think there’s any question that while his last two albums, Hip-Hop is Dead and Untitled, have been nothing to take lightly, both featured moments where he appeared to be coasting on talent alone when we knew we weren’t getting Nas at his best.
As Nas said in a Complex interview, “I toned it [his lyricism] down at times…I wanted to be relatable. And that was part of my mistake because I toned it down a lot.”
There were nights when Michael Jordan knew that even at 90% he was better than everyone else on the court, and he was content to coast on that 90% and walk away with the win. But then there were nights when he was fully locked in, nights when he truly gave the game everything he had—and to see what Jordan’s 100% really looked like was awe-inspiring.
On his new album, Life Is Good, we’re hearing the most locked-in Nas has been in years, and the results are awe-inspiring. To return to that Complex interview, “With this album, I’m saying what I’ve got to say, and that’s what it is.” I don’t know if it took a painful divorce or he has simply hit the point in his life when he’s thinking about his legacy, but goddamn then Nas, keep saying what you’ve got to say.
I rarely move through an album chronologically, but the first five tracks of Life is Good are so dope, so perfectly sequenced that I really feel like I have no choice. Perhaps Nas titled the album opener "No Introduction" because it’s far more than an introduction. Instead, it’s more of a manifesto, a warning shot, an announcement that God’s Son is back and he’s bringing his cinematic storytelling skills with him. "Loco-Motive" follows a similar powerful narrative arc, giving way to the gripping "A Queen’s Story" (sweet baby Jesus the last minute of that song is incredible), shifting seamlessly into "Accident Murderers"—shame about that off-concept Ross verse, though—and closing with the eminently personal "Daughters." Straight up, I’ll put that five-song stretch against any 30 straight minutes from any album since…well…ever.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s downhill from "Daughters." I should acknowledge "Summer on Smash," which isn’t so much a fail as it is a weak link, but the record is only a small speed bump on the road compared to even the album’s other brighter offerings, the Mary J. Blige-assisted "Reach Out," the deeply 90s R&B influenced "Bye Baby" and the now historic collaboration with Amy Winehouse, "Cherry Wine." And those are really only breathers in between the solid walls of dopeness that are cuts like "Back When" and the supremely soulful "World’s An Addiction."
To bring back the comparison that’s been made for over a decade now, JAY-Z never let us this close to his real life, never showed us all his weaknesses alongside his strengths, his mistakes alongside his victories. In that sense, Nas is at the very least one of the bravest rappers alive. He’s come a long way from, “PS 111, free lunch / embarrassed but managed to get a plate / we was kids hungry, moms was workin I was famished, she getting home late.”
For a moment forget about buzz, album sales, cultural impact and every other factor we consider during “who’s the best rapper alive?” debates. Instead, let’s say every emcee alive took part in a March Madness rap tournament, illest verse advances to the next round. Before Life Is Good, I don’t know if I would have put my money on Nas to win it all, but now he’d be my number one pick.
Everyone eventually falls, but only the truly great ones get back up.