I have a theory about this new Nas album. I believe there is a Universal Tax.

Just one day before the 2008 Presidential Election–where Barack Obama would make history–he received word that his grandmother, who raised him, died at her home in Hawaii. Similarly, just as Jamie Foxx began his award show run for the film Ray, culminating in an Academy Award for Best Actor, his grandmother (who raised him) died, never getting to see him win. He dedicated all of his awards (24 in total) to Esther Talley, whom he credits with stepping in and making sure he had the life his own mother was unable to give him.

Most recently, 2011 saw the end of what Kanye West described as the darkest period of his life–the sudden death of his mother, public breakdowns. He and Jay can joke now about the infamous “I’m a let you finish,” but the actual backlash and death threats were enough to drive him to Rome and then to Japan and then finally, after he’d stewed and distracted himself enough, to Hawaii to record unarguably his finest solo effort to date: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Yesterday, as I listened to “Bye, Baby” off of Nas’ forthcoming album Life Is Good, I began to think about the Universal Tax. Buzz on the album is high. Early critiques place it amongst his finest after a long string of misses; that’s evident in the exhausted resignation of Nas’ voice as he chronicles the undoing of his marriage to Kelis. Here is a man who has nothing left which is often the perfect time to win.

Closer to home, some of my biggest personal victories only followed by my most painful losses.

In 2009, one year to the day after the death of the woman who raised me, I found myself covering my very first red carpet at the BET Awards. Michael Jackson had just suddenly died, so my minimal press room coverage was beefed up to report first hand the entertainment community’s reaction to his passing. That four hours worth of work became a working audition.

Later that year, following another familial crisis, I chose to move to New York. I hit the ground running and never looked back. I could give you dozens of other more personal examples, but the point is that I believe that the Universe requires each of us to pay our taxes. Life must take from us before it gives.

The Universal Tax is this…

Life will give you a dream and the winds to start the race, but in the midst, life is going to test you to prove how bad you really want it. In the end–after all of the blood, sweat and tears–you will know that the victory is yours to keep because you have earned it. It’s a universal theme of light and dark. Christianity defines it as good and evil, Eastern philosophy calls it the Yin and the Yang, but the basic principle is the same: without darkness, there is no light. Life is about balance and contrast, and it’s impossible to recognize, appreciate and sustain the ups if there aren’t any downs.

Your darkest hour is often your greatest gift, but whether it’s what does you in or pushes you forward is solely up to you. It’s so easy in the midst of the storm to think you’ve failed. The rapper from Queensbridge had become a living meme, the phrase “smarten up, Nas” used as a cautionary tale for anyone on the downswing.

But he didn’t smarten up. He picked himself up. One of my favorite sayings is: “When the mason finally broke open the stone, he knew that it wasn’t the final blow that did it but instead all the many blows that came before it.”

Nasir used the many challenges to fuel his creativity and tell the story that only he could tell. Then he had sense enough to title it Life is Good, because it is, even the parts that don’t seem like it. After a very public and bitter divorce, in which he lost half of his net worth, then a seven-figure tax lien and a daughter publicly spiraling, could it be possible that a great album–one that fans have been waiting years for–was inevitable? Perhaps, this is just the long-awaited return on his taxes.

What do we take away from this – in addition to some great music? You might be in the thick of the pack right now, there are many ahead of you and you can’t quite see how you will get to the front. Consider this the period where you pay your taxes. The race isn’t over and you never know where you’re going to place until you cross that finish line, so keep running.