Personal feelings aside, no hip hop fan in their right mind would consider Nas anything but one of the legitimate legends of the genre. While some might reasonably argue that his career peaked towards its beginning, there are maybe two MC’s (Jay-Z and Eminem) that have achieved the prolonged success, relevance, or commercial impact that Nas has had on the industry. His current track record of 8 consecutive platinum solo albums is proof of that fact.
It’s impossible to guess whether or not Nas will continue that platinum selling streak with the modern commercial hip hop climate the way it is. But, if Life is Good fails to move units like his past projects did, it’s safe to say that it won’t be due to the quality of its music. Sure, there will always be the critics who will try and compare any Nas project to Illmatic, and come out disappointed. That’s nothing new, and will probably happen here again. Sadly for them, if they’re looking at this one through that lens, those people are going to be missing out.
In fact, Life is Good as a whole feels like the obvious and natural progression for an artist like Nas. From day one, his music has been intelligent, honest, yet at the same time, accessible. His lyrical substance has always centered around his own life’s experiences, in a seemingly transparent way. Today, some argue that his aesthetic has changed, and that’s true, it has…
Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, Nas was brought up with a noticeable advanced understanding of socioeconomic issues and history, he used to rhyme about living in poverty from an educated perspective (despite dropping out of high school). Combined with his undeniable technical rapping ability, it provided the ingredients for something truly special. His style was authentic, introspective, but at the same time in line with what was popular, which was probably the main reason for Illmatic’s wild commercial and critical success, and eventual label as a “classic”.
That isn’t who Nas is anymore. He isn’t a young, hungry, up and comer living though tough times. Now, he’s a wealthy, almost 40-year-old rapper, going through a very public and nasty divorce, and struggling with balancing his career and responsibilities as a father. In many ways, we still get the same Nas, though just at a different point in his life. With that in mind, this album is exactly what any fan should be expecting (and probably wanting) from him.
From start to finish, Life is Good, is full of the unpretentiously insightful and impressive lyricism that showcases the skill and vision that made him one of the most influential artists in hip hop’s history. But, the subject matter has changed dramatically. It’s a lot more focused on the personal issues that Nas has been facing, and they aren’t as tied to many of the subjects that are common in some types of popular hip hop. That isn’t a “bad” or “good” thing, but for fans looking for “street” rap, this isn’t going to be their favorite Nas project.
We get a handful of songs that take a look at love and relationships with a more mature and refined perspective than 95% of modern hip hop, probably due to Nas’s before mentioned split with former R&B star, Kelis. In fact, three of the 18 songs on the deluxe version of the album are about that specific relationship (“Stay”, ”Roses”, and “Bye Baby”). All of these tracks are definitely an interesting look at love gone wrong, however they can come off as a bit creepily voyeuristic at times. You can tell Nas has been doing a lot of reflection, and it shows in his writing.
These songs are a rare unimpeded glimpse into someone’s thoughts of a bad relationship. It’s not “pleasant” and it’s understandable if its not the type of music people would want to listen to, but they are quality. But, it’s hard to imagine them being long lasting fixtures in a lot of hip hop fans’ rotations.
In the same spirit, we also get a few undeniable highlights that come from a personal place. All the relationship issues Nas has been dealing with have obviously had him thinking about women a lot. “Cherry Wine (feat. Amy Winehouse)” is probably going to be one of the biggest crossover alternative/hip hop hits in some time, as Nas complements an excellent performance from the late singer with a vulnerable look at what he wants in his next significant other. “Daughters” is also another very transparent and highly respectable lyrical performance, which focuses on raising a young lady in today’s society.
We do get a handful of “throwback” songs where Nas goes in with a rougher aesthetic on some traditional East Coast beats, like “Nasty”, “Accident Murders (which features one of Rick Ross’s few “lyrical” verses)”, and “Loco-motive”. We even get a few high-energy radio-slanted tracks like “Summer on Smash” and the Jamaican dance hall inspired “The Don”. It gives a great deal of lyrical variety to the project, and provides the album a whole lot of depth. But as a whole, this album is much more personal and subdued than a lot of Nas’s earlier work. It’s still a highly enjoyable experience that stays to the spirit of hip hop though.
Production wise, and nostalgia aside, Life Is Good could very well be Nas’s best project to date. The whole album’s production was handled by A-list names, mostly Salaam Remmi (most famous for producing many of Nas’s own hits), and No I.D. I.D.’s ability to produce a wide range of tracks, while retaining a soulful aesthetic, goes perfectly with the overall approach taken on the album. Swizz Beats provides the sure to be international club hit “Summer on Smash”, which comes a bit more “radio-friendly” than usual for Nas. However, each and every producer lives up the their name here, and with the list of who worked on this one, that’s a lofty complement.
Overall, Life is Good, is an intimate and intelligent look at the life of an aging MC. It’s not Illmatic, but it might be Nas’s “best” album of the 2000’s. It takes on some subjects that are rarely touched in hip hop, and the result is a breath of fresh air. There’s going to be an awful lot of comparative competition coming out this last month or so of Summer, but this one’s a great album that should be embraced by any hip hop fan that isn’t stuck in the nineties. It might not be an “album of the year” contender, or Nas’s best work, but it’s a highly enjoyable, and intelligent, listen.