Nas has achieved a rare thing. Today he turns 40 – a pensioner in hip-hop terms - but he’s still a relevant artist, two decades after his debut ‘Illmatic’ dropped and became the standard for all future rap albums to be judged against. In a year when Jay Z released a banal excuse for a record with ‘Holy Fail', Eminem’s ‘Bezerk’ disappointed everyone, and Snoop Dogg continued to clown around in his midlife crisis, Nas has been playing festivals off the back of one of his best albums, the Grammy-nominated ‘Life Is Good'. The performance I saw at Glastonbury was ferocious.
Nas gets personal on ‘Life Is Good’. He opens up about the breakdown of his marriage to R&B singer Kelis; the album cover sees him suited and sombre with the green wedding dress she left at their house when she walked out. It's unusual for Nas to open up about his private life, but he achieves it without sentimentality. He's also in a reflective state of mind. “All you need is some skill and then it’s grind time/Imagination is better than knowledge, says Einstein,” he raps on 'Reach Out', looking back at his career and how he got to the top.
And imagination has never been in short supply for Nas. He started as a poet of the streets, his gritty tales of life in Queens defined by visceral imagery so graphic you can almost smell the trash cans and exhaust pipes and people “pissing in your elevator.” From the first moment Nas "wipes the sweat off his dome and spits the phlegm on the streets" as he puts it in 'The World Is Yours', his raps are sophisticated and crafted with economy. Just look at his verses in 'Get Down', each word of each line has something to add to the story of a trial that turns riotous and a vivid description of thug life. I've loved that song since its release in 2002 but every time I hear it, his precision and creativity blows my mind. I sometimes take the concision of lines such as “the buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto" ('Life's A Bitch') for granted.
Last month NME.com readers voted Nas the Greatest Rapper Ever. I’d go for that. Though he had a weak patch in the late 90s with ‘Nastradamus’ and ‘I Am’, there is a consistency to his career unrivalled by other solo artist who came up in the 90s, commercially and critically. Who knows what would've happened if Biggie Smalls and Tupac had lived, but when Nas said “there’s one life, one love, so there can only be one king”, he was right.
One of Nas’s virtues is his mystery. He’s shunned the celebrity limelight, despite marrying a famous R&B star and making millions. He managed to remain an indie rapper and retain his underground credibility, despite huge commercial success - he's sold over 50 million albums worldwide. He moved between his characters Nasty Nas, the ghetto bard to Escobar, a name given to him by Wu-Tang Clan which described a boasting gangster persona inspired by the films 'Scarface' and 'Casino' persona coming into its own on 1996's 'It Was Written' to the point where you never knew which one was real. You hardly see him on magazine covers or websites like TMZ, although, his high profile feud with Jay Z was the most talked-about of the 00s. He famously dissed Jay Z in the savage ‘Ether’ for his failure to grow a ‘tache. ”Whiskers like a rat,” he spits. Ouch.
“Yo I used to listen to the Red Alert and Rap Attack/I fell in love with the poetry,” Nas recalls on recent album highlight ‘The Don’, a track that rolls along on one of the best beats of 2012, produced by Salaam Rami, and Heavy D before he died. And, like many poets, he mostly sits outside of his peers, observing rather than getting really involved, a master at telling stories.
Earlier this summer Harvard University announced the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship. He’s also working on a film though it seems, unusually compared with many older rappers, that business comes second to music. In January he announced his 12th album. It's Nas’s thoughtful craft, his cool punch and his eye for detail make him relevant. “Name a rapper that I ain’t influenced,” he fronts, and it's not easy. Sure, writing arguably the greatest rap record of all time as your debut provides rocket fuel, but when he explained “there's one life, one love, so there can only be one king," I reckon he knew he’d still be wearing the crown decades later.