Nearly a decade ago, celebrated hip-hop lyricist Nasir ” Nas” Jones discovered Marvin Gaye‘s divorce masterpiece, “Here, My Dear.” Detailing the late soul legend’s crumbling marriage — and literally recorded as part of its financial settlement — the 1978 double album was a raw, personal portrait of love, jealousy, adultery and bitter courtroom battles. “What could I do, the judge said/ She got to keep on living the way she customed to,” a defeated Gaye sung on the little-known LP, which sold poorly upon its initial release but has picked up critical acclaim in the decades since then.
Nas became intrigued by the honesty and genius of Gaye’s work. “I thought ‘Here, My Dear’ was brave, beautiful, honest, scary and daring,” he says. “I remember putting several artists on to it, from Maxwell to Jay-Z. I couldn’t imagine what Marvin was going through when he was recording it. And I couldn’t imagine me being in a similar position, years later.”
It’s tempting to describe Nas’ 10th studio album, “Life Is Good,” as an updated, hip-hop version of “Here, My Dear.” Early promotion for the highly anticipated July 17 release found the rapper sharing intimate details of his 2009 divorce from R&B vixen Kelis, who was seven months pregnant at the time. “She took her stuff out the house and left her green wedding dress, and that was all she left,” he recalled of the split during an interview with VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
In early June, Def Jam revealed “Life Is Good”‘s cover photograph: a somber Nas-wearing a white, unbuttoned suit-seated with the aforementioned green dress draped over his knee. An online video announcing the new album blasted headlines of the couple’s tumultuous divorce and Nas’ tax troubles, as well as negative criticism of his most recent work. It was the kind of naked vulnerability rarely exhibited in the alpha male world of rap.
“When I started working on the record, I tried to avoid it,” the usually private Nas says of the personal tone on “Life Is Good,” which features glimpses of a marriage falling apart, followed by redemption. “The timing was just calling for me to not avoid all the shit that was going on out there. It was like a 10,000-ton gorilla in the room watching me. This is the way I got it off of my chest. This album talks about life, love and money. It talks about the fact that marriage is expensive. ‘Life Is Good’ represents the most beautiful, dramatic and heavy moments in my life.”
In hip-hop circles the album is being viewed as the grizzled bookend to Nas’ game-changing 1994 debut, “Illmatic” — a work held up as the standard for all New York rap releases to follow. “Life Is Good” avoids the ham-handed political statements of “Hip-Hop Is Dead” (2006) and “Untitled” (2008), instead addressing more universal topics. Nas was ready to open up.
“When I sat down with [producers] No I.D. and Salaam [Remi] and originally told them what I wanted to do, we felt like we were waking up a certain fan that doesn’t buy rap anymore,” Nas recalls. “Our goal on the album was to just do what’s real. No I.D. has been married twice. Swizz [Beatz] has also been married twice and has gone through baby-mama drama. So the conversation between all of us was great.”
The album’s personal moments are indeed startling. “Did counseling, couldn’t force you to stay,” Nas raps on the closer, “Bye Baby,” on which the MC finally finds closure to his turbulent union with Kelis. “We was friends, we had it all/ Reason that you don’t trust men, that was your daddy’s fault/ He in the grave, let it go, he no longer living.”
“We take Nas’ albums very seriously,” Def Jam president Joie Manda says. “The fact that he’s as secure in himself as a man, that he can be this honest, says a lot.” As for rumors that “Life Is Good” marks Nas’ final release on Def Jam, Manda dismisses such talk. “Definitely no… we are going to continue to be in the Nas business.”
And the business of Nas is picking up. There’s a three-week June/July European tour and a headlining slot on the Rock the Bells festival, as well as appearances on “The Colbert Report,” “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and BET’s “106 & Park.”
But platinum albums and international sellout treks aren’t all there is to life. A more mature Nas is finding happiness in the little things that people often take for granted.
“Success is my 3-year-old son having full-on conversations with me,” Nas says. “This is coming from the guy that first told you ‘life’s a bitch.’ I just enjoy life now. I just enjoy every morning I get to wake up.”