Nas

Pain can be a great inspiration for art, and Nas has experienced plenty of it since his divorce in 2009. His new album, Life is Good has a picture of a pensive Nas, whose full name is Nasir Jones, holding the green wedding dress of his ex-wife, Kelis. This sets the mood for the rest of the album, a release which is personal and reflective. As the title suggests, Nas does not pout or self-loathe but rather contemplates the current stage of his life as an aging rapper.

Along with age comes wisdom. Nas’ lyrical artistry is as strong as ever on the album, but his perspective has become more mature. He sagaciously rebukes young kids running around shooting haphazardly in “Accident Murderers” and wonders “Tell me who you impressin’?” when he hears of them accidentally killing innocent people. He muses over his own thug days on “No Introduction” wondering, “How could I not succumb? How could I not partake?” in criminal activities but acknowledges in “Daughters” that he doesn’t want that kind of man around his children. Nas no longer has the street troubles of Queensbridge. He now has to address problems like raising a family, paying taxes and divorce.

He handles the sensitive subject of divorce without much bitterness. “Stay” is about as enraged as he gets, admitting he mostly stayed with Kelis for the physical benefits and says, “I want you dead under six feet of soil/ At the same time, want you here to witness me while you in misery.” But in “Bye Baby,” he addresses her in a much sweeter tone, one that is thankful for the memories and for their child. Of course, Nas addresses more traditional rap topics as well: celebrating his memories of the men he grew up with in Queens (“A Queens Story”) and hard-core rap reminiscent of his ‘90s days (“Loco-Motive,” which even features Large Professor from Illmatic). The only true misstep is “Summer On Smash,” a shameful attempt at a club hit.

The beats throughout the album are varied, interesting and tinged with the sounds of ‘90s hip-hop. No I.D. and Salaam Remi do most of the production, and they provide excellent beats for his mesmerizing and well enunciated delivery. Nas’ flow is as elegant as ever and equally poignant. His lyrics are resonant, and the beats sustain his lyrical energy. Nas seems to have made a resounding return to the forefront of the hip-hop scene.

Beach House — “Myth”

On their first single, “Myth,” off their soon-to-be-released third album, Bloom, Beach House doesn’t stray too far from the sound that has come to define them: airy melodies that soar. That may be playing it safe, but then Alex Scally begins playing his twinkling and mesmerizing guitar chords and you fall deeply into this dream-pop landscape. Yet, as always, Victoria Legrand’s vocals leave the biggest mark. Heavy, smoky and deep with the weight of expectation and hope all bottled in there, her vocals swoon, as she calls out to “help me make it.” It’s simply sublime.

Nas — “The Don”

Nas proclaimed that hip-hop was dead in 2006, seeing the genre overcome with ego and greed, and that was saying something from a rapper of his intelligence. However, on “The Don,” Nas doesn’t make too much of a case for being able to save it himself. Nas doesn’t want to talk about politics or societal issues when he could very well talk about himself.

He declares at one point, “Bottles on bottles with sparklers surround my team.” It’s familiar ground for hip-hop and done better before (see: “Watch the Throne”). However, the sound of the song is hypnotic. Produced by Salaam Remi, Da Internz and Heavy D with samples from Supa Cat, “The Don” is a slice of dancehall against hard, classic hip-hop beats.

Garbage — “Blood for Poppies”

Though they once dominated alternative radio in the ’90s, there’s something a bit jarring about hearing Garbage unabashedly return to that decade on their first single in seven years, “Blood for Poppies.” Instead of merely returning to their own sound, Garbage has instead coopted ’90s pop-rock.

The industrial beats of past Garbage songs are still there. But the guitars chug along with power chords. On the chorus, the guitar soars and Shirley Manson almost begs you to sing along, repeating, “I don’t know why they are calling on the radio.” It’s a hook that recalls Smashmouth of “All-Star” fame. And yet, it works for Garbage. As they head into their third decade, they’ve surrendered and just want to have some fun — ’90s style.

Rascal Flatts — “Changed”

Does there come a point when you should stop badmouthing something so terribly awful? Because no matter how painfully obvious Rascal Flatts’ music is and no matter how much criticism is thrown at them, they’ll still release songs like “Changed.” Lead singer Jay DeMarcus continues to wail out saccharine lyrics — this time about being a better man — against slow and clean country-tinged guitars and drums that are free of grit or tension.

Of course, they aren’t doing anything differently than any traditional pop act would do by repeating a successful formula. But maybe Rascal Flatts could have taken some advice from this song and actually shake it up.

When documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev first announced his latest endeavor, “Re:Generation,” in October of last year, questions arose as to how well the acclaimed director would be able to bring two separate genres together in order to create something that was both cohesive and enjoyable. Although the movie will not be released in the country until Feb. 16 (those hoping to watch it in Austin will have to wait until South By Southwest), the documentary’s soundtrack offers a glimpse into the work and creativity depicted in the film.

“Re:Generation” features 10 songs: Five original arrangements by the artists involved and five remixes of those arrangements. The former is the most important part, showcasing electronic sounds and ideas intermingling with jazz, rap, classical, country and rock. Each song reveals the artist’s desire to challenge themselves in a genre they are unfamiliar with. Since each DJ/producer tackles a different genre, the soundtrack remains captivating until the very end, taking listeners on an electronic-dabbled adventure in well under half an hour. The arrangements are a near-perfect balance between electronic samples and sounds and acoustic instrumentation, with neither one overpowering the other unless a certain part of the song calls for it.

“Breakn’ a Sweat,” the collaboration between Skrillex and remaining Doors members, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore, lights the album’s fire. The seizure-inducing, dying-elephant sounds that have become a staple of dubstep music blend seamlessly with Manzarek’s church-organ melodies and Krieger’s psychedelic guitar. “Let’s kick ass,” says Manzarek confidently before the chorus makes an explosive transition into the trademark “drop” section found in most dubstep songs.

“Wayfaring Stranger,” the collaboration between Pretty Lights, Leann Rimes and Dr. Ralph Stanley, is one of the more compelling songs on the soundtrack. The gritty electronic fuzz gives the song an eerie, somber atmosphere, while the reverberated, surf-rock guitar and finger-picked acoustic guitar paint vibrant pictures of a 19th century cowboy showdown. “I am a poor wayfaring stranger / while journeying through this world of woe,” sings Leann Rimes in the distance, the strange combination of tumbleweed country blending easily with buzzy discordance and mechanical percussion.

The title song most embodies what this whole musical project is about. Acclaimed DJ Premier and rapper Nas tackle uncharted territory by working with the Berklee Symphony Orchestra to create an arrangement that puts the legendary MC’s lyrical expertise to a challenge. “Composer, DJ Premier. Maestro, Sir Nas,” says the rapper courageously, backed by staccato strings and punchy percussion that will bring to mind the production of Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.

Each collaborator and their respective genre is fitting; it’s not too unfamiliar that the arrangements could be disastrous, but it is challenging enough to put the artist’s creativity to the test. For example, Skrillex, whose past contributions to post-hardcore act From First to Last have seeped into the raw, aggressive sound that is a large component to the music he makes now, seems to effortlessly unite rock with dubstep, allowing moments for both his spastic monster sounds and The Doors’ laid-back psychedelic feel to shine. Same with Mark Ronson; “A La Modeliste,” the producer’s collaboration with Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Trombone Shorty showcases Ronson’s eclectic musical background as he brings together dixieland jazz with soul and funk.

“Re:Generation” does its job and then some. It not only puts the artist’s talents on display, but shows the potential between bringing together genres of music in a way that has never been done before. Hopefully, this will serve as a catalyst for future collaborations. Even if not, considering the soundtrack achieves its goal of highlighting the beauty of intermingling genres, “Re:Generation” is an enjoyable and an interesting listen.

Printed on, Tuesday February 14, 2012 as: Project's soundtrack shows broad mix of collaborations