GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
And it's time now for music. It's been almost two decades since rapper Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, released his first solo album, "Illmatic."
Now, the two things you need to know about Nas are, for starters, he is almost peerless among rappers, considered by critics to be one of the best of all time, and that record, "Illmatic," also considered one of the best albums of the past 20 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY LANE (SITTIN' IN DA PARK)")
NAS: (Rapping) I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners.
RAZ: When "Illmatic" came out, Nas was just 20 years old, and he wanted to paint a portrait of the life he lived within the notorious Queensbridge housing project in New York. Just a few years before, Nas himself had been a crack dealer.
NAS: It was about bringing you inside my apartment. It wasn't about anything other than, I want you to know who I am, what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like, what crackheads do. I wanted you to smell it, feel it. It's important to me that I told the story that way because I thought it wouldn't be told if I didn't tell it.
RAZ: Nas is now approaching the age of 40. And on his new album, "Life is Good," he's got a different story to tell. This is a record about coping with the aftermath of a failed marriage.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO INTRODUCTION")
NAS: (Rapping) Music notes on sheets. I wrote this piece to get closure. Some of y'all might know Kelis. This goes to her with love...
RAZ: On the album cover, Nas sits with a green dress draped across his lap. It's the only thing his ex-wife, Kelis, left behind when she divorced him a few years ago.
NAS: It's actually not her entire dress because it probably would not have fit in the picture. It was so big. But it took me a long time to really get through it. The album cover gives you that. It gives you what's been happening with me. It's wins and losses in life.
RAZ: I'm wondering why you decided to open up so much about your personal life on this record.
NAS: Well, in the past, I had to deal with issues that hit me as a younger man. I'm like, dealing with different things now. You know what I mean? I feel like every album doesn't have to be the same thing. Then it becomes a gimmick if every rap album you make is about how you came up in the hood. I'm 38 now. I mean, this is my 10th album. I wouldn't want to hear someone be around for a long time talking about the same thing. I want to get to know this person. I want to hear them give me something that I can relate to.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAUGHTERS")
NAS: (Rapping) For my brothers with daughters, I call this. For my brothers with daughters, I call this.
RAZ: I want to ask you about being a father. You have a song called "Daughters," and it's about you daughter, and it's about something that really happened. She posted a photo on a social media site, and there was a box of condoms in the background. And you wrote a song about this. How were you feeling when all that came out?
NAS: I felt like I wasn't there enough. I felt like she is putting on an act. She's home doing these things and talking like she's out in the world and the streets and making moves. And she's home tweeting these things, so I saw that she needed some attention. And I felt like, what kind of crappy dad am I that I didn't get to her beforehand?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAUGHTERS)
NAS: (Rapping) She looked at me like I'm not the cleanest father figure, but she rocking with it. For my brothers with daughters, I call this. For my brothers with daughters, I call this.
Those things like that, really, it bothered me, and it bothered her mom. When I put out the record "Daughter," and I say, man, I should have drove her to school more, I should have been there more, I'm talking about myself too. I wasn't the best.
RAZ: You have a line there that says God gets us back. He makes us have precious little girls.
NAS: Right. So it's like, well, look at this. The guy who thought he was Casanova, now, he has a daughter, who has to deal with the Casanovas out there, probably, you know?
RAZ: Let's hear another track off the record. This one's called "Cherry Wine."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERRY WINE")
NAS: (Rapping) I want someone who likes the champagne I like. My a-alike, someone to talk me off the bridge any day and night. She teach me how to live. She ain't afraid of life.
RAZ: That song is, of course, about that elusive thing, which is finding the perfect partner, the perfect person.
RAZ: Something that's eluded you as well.
NAS: Well, I thought I found one. And, I don't know. It's just something that I don't know if we'll ever figure out. I hope I do while I'm here.
RAZ: When you were married to Kelis, your wife from whom you split, did you think that was going to be forever?
NAS: Yes, of course. Of course. In the beginning.
RAZ: What do you think is the problem? I mean, is it that you have a difficult time settling down?
NAS: I don't know if it's me. It could be me. It could be - hey, I don't know. That's the thing I was just talking to one of my boys about. Like, when he did things with his girl, I realized I didn't do those things. I'm kind of a little rough around the edges. Like, come on, baby, let's go. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm missing a - I mean, I open doors. You know what I'm saying? I buy flowers. I do those things. But there's a part of me that's still rough around the edges, and it comes off as insensitive. It comes off like I don't care, like, you know, it's all about me, I guess. I don't know.
RAZ: I want to ask about the last track on this record, which is about your ex-wife, Kelis, called "Bye, Baby." We hear you talking about all of the good that came from that marriage.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE, BABY")
NAS: (Rapping) At least I could say I tried plus enjoyed the ride. Plus, we got our little boy, my little joy and pride. He got my nose, my grill, your color, your eyes.
I just wanted to make that one real record about that situation. And I'm hearing like, artists, men, famous guys, saying that that song made them cry. And it just blows me away. For one, it means I nailed it. You know what I mean? Like, I nailed the song. And that, to me, is the greatest feeling of achievement, man. You don't want to disappoint. Especially someone like me who's been out of music for years and hasn't had an album in like, four years, I don't want to disappoint. That's a nightmare to me.
So when I hear people love it or like it or even cry to it, it just says, wow, I did something right. I got it. I got it done. I'm not falling off. And that piece right there was something I just needed to do. That song, I had to. It was to me the most important record on the album.
RAZ: And you sort of end it with - one of the last lines says: Watch me do it all again. It's a beautiful life. What is that thing that you'll do again?
NAS: Get married at some point. I want to be better at it. I want to be the best at it. It's a beautiful life. You learn, you win, you lose, but you get up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE, BABY")
NAS: (Rapping) Bye baby, bye baby.
RAZ: That's legendary rapper Nasir Jones, better known as Nas. His new record is called "Life is Good." He spoke to us from our New York bureau. Nas, thanks so much.
NAS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE, BABY")
NAS: (Rapping) Bye baby, bye baby. 'Cause I'm saying bye-bye. I guess you knew and blew a good thing, baby. Bye, baby. I guess you know why I had to leave.
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcasts. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or go to npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.