Something weird is going on in rap music; older rappers are as lost as Mitt Romney in a Dollar Tree. In a game dominated by the young, there doesn’t seem to be much place for men of a certain age talking about clubs, bottles of alcohol and selling drugs, and the resulting soul-searching has yielded some alarming results. Busta Rhymes signed to Young (Young!) Money to rap alongside guys like Lil Chuckee and Tyga. Mobb Deep engaged in some Twitter war where homophobic slurs were exchanged and phantom lost cell phones were to blame. Pete Rock and Lord Finesse are suing and beefing with rappers for using samples they originally used decades ago. Meanwhile, Drake and his peers are laughing at rap’s senior citizens (“talking about these other rappers getting old is even getting old,” he raps on Meek Mill’s “Amen”).
While the most sustainable way for rappers to maintain an edge into middle age has been to fill every song with lyrics about how soft and vapid today’s whippersnappers are (most masterfully accomplished in Heltah Skeltah’s 2008 anti-pop gem D.I.R.T. —if you listen to it and don’t want to smack a high school kid, then you’re part of the problem), being overly didactic about the golden era alienates younger listeners and gets tiring even for the most staunch old-school enthusiast. There’s a fine line between being a throwback act who’s critical of today’s microwavable hits and who becomes one of the finger-waving old uncles hip-hop was built partially to rebel against. Ice T’s anti-Soulja Boy videos and KRS-One’s quizzical battle with Nelly came off as more of the ladder than anything.
So what exactly does an elder statesman do to stay fresh, relevant and entertaining in today’s hip-hop market? The 39-year-old Nas may have the answer.
Life Is Good (Def Jam) may have ushered in an era of hip-hop for grown-ups. Sure, people are going to point to the wedding dress on the cover and the previously leaked “Bye Baby” and see only an attempt to air out dirty laundry, but there’s so much more to digest. Nas’s latest project is rap for married or divorced men with bills and children, and not that many MCs can stake a claim to that type of endeavor. Phonte’s near-classic Charity Starts At Home and Common’s The Dreamer/The Believer (which was unfortunately overshadowed by his not-so-grown-up tiff with Drake) focused on manhood and the real responsibilities that brings. But Nas, whose most recent attempts to push hip-hop’s boundaries (Hip-Hop Is Dead and his untitled 2007 album) came off more forced than creatively influenced, has found his footing rapping about a few basic truths: the ’90s were awesome, and being a family man can be the most emotionally draining task anyone has to go through.
Life Is Good opens with mostly standard Nas fare showing that he still has it as the game’s perennial lyricist—but he eschews any fictional bravado about how he’s still out in the streets cooking coke in between VH1 specials. He even downplays some of his previous conflicts: “I never claim to be the toughest, though I’m to blame for a few faces reconstructed.”
It’s not until “Daughters” that we see the fully matured daddy MC. While every rapper worth anything has performed an ode to his kid, Nas took thing further by tackling the incident that saw his daughter posting pictures of condoms on Twitter and dating a jailed adolescent that seemingly jumped out of one of Nas’s earlier raps. The song isn’t run-of-the-mill baby momma rants and “my kid is my heart” bars. Instead, Nas talks about how difficult life is when raising a teenage daughter. He doesn’t want her to turn 17. He doesn’t want her to date. And he abhors dealing with her mother. This struggle is as relatable as any subject music will broach, and a topic J. Cole or Waka Flocka won’t rap about any time soon.
Nas spends most of the rest of the album vacillating between reminiscing on how great the golden era of hip-hop was and reflecting on the trials and tribulations of adult relationships. While Nas’s debut opus Illmatic was insulated in the way it essentially only dealt with what Nas witnessed right outside his project window, Life Is Good takes a more global approach, allowing Nas to take on tangible close-to-home perspectives.
The lone misstep is the clear radio-reach “Summer On Smash,” a cookie-cutter Swizz Beatz anthem that seemed like it came from Cassidy’s cutting-room floor. The middle portion of the album loses a bit of momentum with consecutive R&B cuts from Mary J. Blige and Anthony Hamilton, but it all picks up nicely by the time the Heavy D.-produced “The Don” takes us to the days of Nas’s tech on his dresser.
Those looking for the full classic experience are going to want to grab the deluxe edition, which features bangers that had no excuse being left off the album: “Roses,” the unfiltered and intensely more bitter open letter to Kelis that strikes more chords than “Bye Baby”; and “Nasty,” the album’s first single that set expectations so high for Life Is Good in the first place.
If Life Is Good reaches the commercial success to match its critical acclaim, the copycat nature of hip-hop will surely greenlight more projects for the man who would rather watch Modern Family or Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air marathons than pop bottles in the club. And by extension, more old guys could, thanks to God’s Son, find a niche that’ll help them transition to elder-statesman status.