First, let’s get it out of the way. Nas’ Life Is Good is worth the proverbial hype. The tenth release from the celebrated Queensbridge, New York lyricist is also his best effort in years—a work that is as brutally honest as it is ambitious. Yes, much of the talk surrounding the project revolves around its startling, barebones personal content, a project that finds Nas brilliantly detailing his very public divorce with R&B vixen Kelis, his tax issues and fatherhood. But to Nas’ credit, Life Is Good is more than just bold a dissection of tabloid headlines. It’s hopeful, infectious, defiant, redemptive and at times nostalgic. VIBE caught up with Nas to discuss his bold new work and his legacy within the hip-hop landscape. It’s Nasty Nas, y’all.—Keith Murphy
There’s been a lot of talk about the influence Marvin Gaye’s landmark Here, My Dear had on you during the recording of Life Is Good. How much of an impact did that album have on your creative writing process?
A lot…just Marvin’s overall genius. It’s an album that I really love and a lot of people still have never heard it. Marvin wasn’t afraid to put it all out there. He was very open with [the break up] of his marriage.
From the album cover, which highlights Kelis’ wedding dress, to some of the personal details you reveal about your own divorce, were you initially apprehensive about sharing personal details of your relationship?
It just came naturally. It really bothered me because we are in the Internet age. There was no way to avoid everything that was out there. To me that’s what shaped this album. I couldn’t escape all the stuff about my marriage or questions about [my finances]. So my answer was putting Kelis’ green wedding dress on the album cover. The music and the reality of my life go hand-in-hand. Life is poetry and that’s what this new album is. I haven’t had a record out in a long time. This is the way I got it all off of my chest.
Can you talk about what the creative process was like working with No I.D.?
With No I.D. at first it took us a while to really see what train we were both on. We both seemed to agree on a lot of things, but to work together we had to make sure we were on the same page. His take on the album was for me to just be myself. Forget everything else…just do what’s real. That’s always been the formula with me and Salaam [Remi]. So it was no different with No I.D. We would just spend sessions talking. Those conversations really kept me on point. No I.D. is a brilliant dude.
One of the songs on Life Is Good that showcases your fruitful collaborative relationship with No I.D. is the single “Daughters,” which talks about your at times rocky relationship with your teenage daughter Destiny. Can you describe the first time she heard the song?
She was there when I was recording it. We were in a big studio so Destiny was doing other things, but she walked into the room where I was recording it and heard a few words and said, ‘What’s going on?’ The whole room just started laughing and she kind of smiled and walked backwards out of the room. She didn’t know what it was about and she didn’t want to listen to it, but later on she heard the song.
And what was the verdict?
I think she understands where I was coming from. She can hear me saying that I wasn’t always around and I wasn’t always the best dad, but I care. And there are a lot of fathers like me. To me, ‘Daughters’ lets all those fathers out there know, ‘Hey, don’t end up like me in terms of not being there all the time.’ You should really pay attention to the most precious thing in the world. Destiny and I hang out all the time. She never beefs with me about it.
What did you learn from working with Swizz Beatz this go around?
Working with Swizz was great. We both have been through divorce. Me and Swizz both been through baby mama drama. We both have an undying love for hip-hop. And we are in great places in our life. He’s probably in a better place when it comes to his love life because Swizz is married to the amazing Alicia Keys. But we’re both in a great place in our lives.
There are some very savvy features on this album such as Rick Ross, Anthony Hamilton, and the late Amy Winehouse. Were there any other artists that you wanted to collaborate with that didn’t make it on the album?
One of the only other rappers I thought about was AZ. And I wanted Eminem for a remix for “Daughters,” but he had already expressed that he’s spoken so much about his daughter throughout his career that he had done that subject too much. And me and Jay-Z talked about doing some things, but our schedules were so crazy.
That would have been worthy of pushing back the album, huh?
[Laughs] Well, I know we both are probably going to be upset that he didn’t make it onto the album because I really look forward to working with Jay. But I didn’t want a lot of people on the album since it’s been four years for me. Next album I’ll do more features, but on this one I didn’t want to have a lot of people on the album. I also have Mary J. Blige on vocals. I’m drawn to that soulful sound.
There seems to be a real synergy between you and Rick Ross. Were you surprised how well you complimented each other lyrically?
Not really. People see him as a Biggie…but I see him as an Isaac Hayes or a Barry White when it comes to his actual sound. He has soul. His voice is soulful. And where he raps from is very soulful. That’s how he resonates to me. So that’s why I wanted him on the record.
This is probably the most stripped down Nas album fans have heard in a long time. Did you have any of the Def Jam suits complain that you weren’t being commercial enough with this release?
Let’s be real, this is a business. It’s always about money, but when it came to Life Is Good I told Salaam and No I.D. that I wanted to make music that was age appropriate and real to who I am. And that was still connecting with today’s hip-hop fan. But the truth is, we don’t know that market. We don’t know who that consumer is. So that no longer became the focal point for this album. Now it’s about doing what we love. To make music with No ID and Salaam, who were both poppin’ in the ‘90s and still poppin’ today, they were the perfect producers to work with me. This record took on a feeling of an era that’s been gone for a while.
Having worked with Nicki Minaj, what are your views on some critics who say she is not real hip-hop?
I think the hip-hop purists are purists through and through. They’re here to criticize all of us. That’s just how it is. We as MC’s criticize each other. That’s the nature of hip-hop. But to say that Nicki is not hip-hop is inaccurate. She wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t hip-hop. We saw her come up in the streets and virally with all the YouTube videos. She earned her position. She came up through the ranks. She came from nothing and became the one female that’s holding it down for hip-hop.
Before you released your landmark album Illmatic, you were barely 18-years-old when you made your recording debut on Main Source’s “Live At The Barbecue” in 1991. What goes through your mind when you listen to that verse decades later?
It gives me the chills. I’m thinking to myself, ‘The balls of this young man!’ [laughs] The curiosity in his rhyme and the heart and the voice. I was saying to the world, ‘It’s about to go down…I’m about to do some things.’ From that point on, I would have never known that I would be the guy with probably the longest hip-hop career that has been able to stay strong and have a meaning. I feel like I’ve been able to keep it diverse and creative. I think I’ve had the longest career of strength, focus, and still being able to sell records. I think I’m that guy.
I’m still blessed with the opportunity to make music and pass out a message like life is good to the world.