Nas – Life Is Good
Def Jam: 2012
Nebulous background chatter among hip-hop’s cognescenti would have us believe that Nas’ musical output since his classic debut has defined the hip-hop law of diminishing returns. I have certainly bought into the assessment. And this coming from a head who in fact heard Illmatic after It Was Written, loved the latter to a high degree, but had his total outlook on ‘90s New York City boom-bap (not to mention the very ethos of the artist in question) corrected upon hearing the former.
At the risk of re-making the ubiquitous A Rapper Can Never Top His/Her Debut Record argument for the 4,081st time, I would say we’ve reached a reasonable juncture in Nas’ career when we should stop focusing on why everything post-Illmatic has been perceived as a resounding disappointment and begin focusing on the man as he exists in the present. Re-focused critical energies may even catalyze proper discussion on how his still-growing catalog of music will ultimately define his legacy. We should simply take this pragmatic stance because — and everyone say it together now – Nas will never make an album as great as Illmatic.
Which isn’t to say he won’t make great songs, or even very good albums. In fact, he’s made a handful of tracks as good or better as those found on his benchmark collection, and indeed there are more great ones on Life Is Good, his tenth studio album and (presumably) last on current label home Def Jam. Nas is one of the greatest rappers ever at channeling particular moods and evoking visceral images that are specific to the ‘hood pathos of New York City, the grimy beast that birthed hip-hop and the only place where the genre, due in-part to Nasir Jones himself, remains the defining fundamental unit of music.
Life Is Good builds more than a few bridges to the Golden Era of Gotham City rap. “Loco-Motive”, for example, is a reanimated first-class Tunnel banger complete with Large Professor ad-libs. “I been rich longer than I been broke” Nas raps over No I.D.’s urgent, churning beat. The Queensbridge-raised MC has rap-generated wealth in spades now which puts him in that rare position of being able to speak with authority on both sides of the New York City tax bracket: that of the bedraggled have-nots amassed on top of each other within dank public housing complexes, and that of the ivory-towered luxe who speed past said projects in pristine autos on the adjacent FDR highway. Nas has lived the lifestyles of both, but historically it’s been his gilded viewpoint that unnerves post-Illmatic critics with unreasonable cross-over expectations. (Blame the fallout from hip-hop’s corporate commodification as succinctly described by Toure recently in the Washington Post.)
In any case, Nas makes moves through fickle listeners’ ears more deftly on Life Is Good than on any record before. Credit re-focused lyricism and better-curated instrumentals for that. “A Queens Story” swirls dramatically with getting-over-without-getting-killed retrospect over a building string section, and “Back When” makes for a suitable companion to Illmatic’s “Memory Lane” with a similar dusty throwback sample and scratched vocals. Nas incorporates his customary R&B fusion in a few spots, the highlight being “Reach Out” featuring Mary J. Blige on the hook and an heretofore missing-in-action Rodney Jerkins on co-production. The mid-90s radio sheen is consistent with past Nasty-Mary collaborations, but here the MC’s fast rap is laser-precise and more engaging than previous efforts. “Accident Murderers” repurposes a familiar breakbeat into a choral fustian on disingenuous hoods. It’s a superb generalized diss track by Nas, muddled of course by Rick Ross’ smirk-inducing appearance — hopefully the two of them shared an ironic chuckle in the studio after finishing this one.
Unfortunately there are missteps: “World’s An Addiction” (featuring Anthony Hamilton) is a retread of standard rap pessimism and “Summer On Smash” is a Swizz Beatz color-by-numbers club joint that isn’t good enough to be even enjoyably forgettable. “Cherry Wine” (with Amy Winehouse) is a nice standalone piece of sentimentality that should have been released strictly as a one-off; it doesn’t belong anywhere on Life Is Good much less within two tracks of the myth-building monument that is “The Don”, the second single from the album and, along with the first leak “Nasty” (which appears on the “deluxe” version of the album), helped set the dreaded expectation machine into motion in earnest about four months ago.
Life Is Good was released with accompanying buzz concerning the rapper’s divorce from singer Kelis (you probably know by now that that’s her green wedding dress draped over Nas’ lap on the album’s cover). Surprisingly (refreshingly?) there’s very little dirty laundry aired on the two tracks that directly address the situation (“No Introduction” and “Bye Baby”), which might be an indication that the divorce is less of an album plot device than it is a footnote to a man’s advancing life experience. “Daughters”, Nas’ thoughtful ode to the turbulent spin-cycle otherwise known as fatherhood, is more indicative of where the man’s head is positioned: in the here-and-now. “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.” Those words certainly sound like a man content in his current situation. It would behoove hip-hop fans to join him in a similar place.