- No Introduction
- Loco-Motive (ft. Large Professor)
- A Queens Story
- Accident Murderers (ft. Rick Ross)
- Reach Out (ft. Mary J. Blige)
- World's An Addiction (ft. Anthony Hamilton)
- Summer on Smash (ft. Miguel & Swizz Beatz)
- You Wouldn't Understand (ft. Victoria Monet)
- Back When
- The Don
- Cherry Wine (ft. Amy Winehouse)
- Bye Baby
“Any other real niggas in the world besides us, I ask? Probably are, but we’ll never cross paths.”
And with this couplet from “A Queens Story,” one of the myriad highlight tracks from Nas’ new album Life is Good, you get a pretty good sense of where Nas’ head is at in 2012. He’s old. He’s kinda pissed. For a 38-year-old, he’s not the most out of touch he could be. But he still feels alone, isolated in a world that he’s struggling to keep up with as he gets older. It’s led to some questionable moves on the part of the Queens rapper in the recent past; the less said about Distant Relatives, the half-assed snoozefest he put together with Damian Marley, the better. The same goes for bushels of tracks from Untitled and Hip-Hop Is Dead. But with Life Is Good, he’s trying to correct all that. It’s easily his best album since the last time someone said one of his albums was his best album since Illmatic, one that finds him doing what he does well and little else.
Some things never change. Nas still can’t write hooks for shit, he still kind of sucks at picking beats, and though he’s stuffed to the brim with ideas, he’s still capable of making you cringe with his wordplay. More than any of his recent records, he manages to avoid terrible beats by largely sticking with producers Salaam Remi and No I.D., both of whom are producers from Nas’ era who have managed to age with a grace that has, until now, eluded Nas. They lace him with tracks meant to evoke a bygone era—a New York where Pete Rock could fuck around and produce a hit on the pop charts, and lyricism reigned supreme. Nas is rapping here as if his life depends on it, basically obliterating everyone in sight. His eye for detail is strong; he raps about pizza burning the roof of his mouth on one track, he discusses having ascended his father (avant-garde jazz musician Olu Dara) by virtue of semantics, and talks about how the highlight of his life was his ex yelling at cops.
As with many of his recent works, Life Is Good seems to generate from a specific center. If Untitled was a ham-fisted take on racial politics and media bullshittery and Hip-Hop Was Dead was mostly about how he thought rap was really stupid in 2006, then Life Is Good can be looked at as Nas taking stock of his life as an adult, feeling content in some spots, wondering where it all went wrong in others. Consider “Daughters,” a nuanced take on fatherhood that reminds us that Nas is still one of the better writers in hip-hop. His daughter’s been seeing a boy who’s “locked up;” he’s upset. But how can he reconcile his disapproval that he was doing the exact same shit that his daughter’s beau was doing when he was his age? He’s terrified of his child having sex; it’s impossible to imagine, say, Jay-Z expressing a similar sentiment. The other deeply personal song on here is “Bye Baby,” a take on how his marriage with Kelis effectively crumbled. He admits to having been changed deeply by their marriage, and, “At least I can say I tried and enjoyed the ride.” It’s a rare rapper who will admit he went to marriage counseling and say he felt like part of him disappeared at the end of a relationship, but the song’s still kind of fucked-up—Nas concludes it’s all Kelis’ fault. It’s unfortunate that Nas can look at his relationship with his daughter and wonder what he could have done better, but he can’t look at the failing of his marriage as something that he contributed to as well.
It is this divorce that colors the entirety of Life Is Good: It’s a piece of Kelis’ wedding dress that he’s holding on the album’s cover, and the renewed fire with which Nas raps could be looked at as something generated by a sense of personal desperation. Indeed, he repeats the albums titular phrase ad infinitum throughout its 58-minute runtime, to the point where it nearly reaches semantic satiation. This is a decidedly dark album, one that finds Nas looking into the shadows—his own, and those of Illmatic, the album to which many of the beats on Life Is Good hearken. “Back When” reminds of “Memory Lane.” The synths of “You Wouldn’t Understand” sound way too much like those on “Life’s A Bitch” for Nas not to have done that on purpose. The dark keys on “Loco Motive?” Yeah, we already heard those on “NY State Of Mind.” Nas’ vision of “contemporary rap music,” however, isn’t the strongest. The intro “No Introduction” sounds like it was produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and “Summer On Smash” is clearly something Swizz Beatz’ found on a zip drive from 2002 or something. Still, the vast majority of this album knocks to fuck and back, which is something we haven’t been able to say about Nas in a long, long time.
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