NAS IS A MAN; he’s almost 40. It’s on the cover of his latest release, Life is Good that this is dramatically apparent: He’s got a part in his hair and is sharply dressed, holding in his lap the dress his ex-wife, Kelis, wore on their wedding day in 2005. It’s easily the most personal cover art he’s ever done (dissection of Nas’ choices of art should be a college seminar), a simple image that speaks either volumes about the fragility of life, or how cold a move it was for Kelis to leave only that dress behind when she left, or both. The photo, too, isn’t about about Nas fishing for sympathy. Instead, it symbolizes his own reconciliation with the twists and turns that accompany manhood.

But the first few songs of the album, 'No Introduction' (sampled from Kirk Franklin’s 'Don’t Cry'), 'Loco-Motive' and 'A Queens Story' seem more like pointed, almost satirical allusions to Nas and the electric flow he delivered as a boy genius. They are replete with vivid descriptions of street life along with poetry about street thuggery that’s nothing if not ironic.

'Loco-Motive' is a hard-driving, ominous loop. Suddenly, it’s 1994 and you envision Nas on the corner taking deliberate swigs out of cheap gin, long, wince-eyed drags from a carousel of blunts. It has the feel and imagery reminiscent of his work on, say, the unforgettable N.Y. State of Mind. That would be in deep contrast with the debonair, mature album cover; indeed, even Nas says it’s for “my trapped in the nineties niggas.” Or would it? Why can’t hip-hop get over its obsession with Nasir Jones, age 17? Well, partially because he won’t let us.

The idea that such a young, sharp mind could emerge from an often hopeless brand of poverty captured the culture and immediately changed New York’s hip-hop landscape. Her was Nas’ New York: Gritty, ruthless and riddled with hard realities like the fact that you might lose your best friend to gun violence; indeed, New York was the only place where the massive Queensbridge housing project, could exist: Nas is from a universe inside a Universe. On 'Loco-Motive' he offers this missive: At night, New York, eat a slice too hot/ Use my tongue to tear the skin hangin' from the roof of my mouth/ Shit was felicissimo, melted pot, city sweltering hot/ Staggering drunker than those cops that Tupac shot I was a crook by the train with that iron thing, concealed Reaching, soon as I heard them iron wheels screeching The type of reflection that marked Nas’ earliest work is delivered with a different type of currency on Life is Good.

On 'Accident Murderers' (which features a rejuvenated Rick Ross) Nas isn’t comfortable in the way the city’s changed; his view of the new generation is particularly cynical. Watch 'em grow to a man, I see them now they repping/But they cold-blooded, homie, wondering where the respect went/Can't play with these little n*ggas, gangsta little n*ggas/Can't hang with these little n*ggas, they killing, they reckless. You’re left to wonder how much more he’s got to say on the topic. But one of the beautiful themes of Life is Good is Nas’ relative with the circumstances of his extraordinary life. And who could have foreseen the way in which Nas’ life would turn out? He made It Was Written… and he made Nastradamus. He went toe-to-toe with Jay-Z and the IRS; he married and had a son; He got divorced and by his account, rebounded from his money problems. “I know you think my life is good cause my diamond piece/But my life been good since I started finding peace,”  he raps on 'Loco-Motive.'

This solace is deeply personal, and this where the album art takes center stage in the music. The Salaam Remi-produced 'Bye Baby' (the sample is from Guy’s Goodbye Love –“I guess you knew and blew a good thing, baby,”), a poignant account of the glory days of he and Kelis’ partnership, simply shines. He covers the good and the bad, the exciting, embarrassing, the end — and still, he admits he’s glad to have tried his hand at love. “Plus we got our little boy, my little joy and pride/He got my nose, my grill, your color, your eyes.” They’re no longer together, but she’s got to look into Nas’ face to look into Knight’s. And Nas is more than a little okay with that. Nas’ brilliance lies now, amongst many other things, on his influence on another generation of the culture. The parts of Life is Good paint a picture of this complex effect and are indicative of his singular gifts. He rhymes to a sample Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 12 on 'A Queens Story' — who in hip-hop has such depth of character in their voice and narrative to pull that off? Then there’s his enormous capacity to heal. The late singer Amy Winehouse, who so publicly battled addiction and probably loneliness, sings tenderly about — of all things — finding her soul mate. And on 'Daughters' his critical self-reflection crescendos: How’s his daughter’s irresponsible behavior influenced by his own?

This is Nas now: accountable, regal, imperfect, exhilarating, honest, legendary. Then again, that was Nas, then, too.