Surveying reviews both of Nas’s 10th solo album – the subject of this review – and of the litany of essays that have been hurriedly penned in response to much of his material over the past 18 years; the obvious two subjects which denote the rite of passage of being a Nas review are of course his drawn-out beef with contemporary Jay-Z (Read most thought-out reviews are you are told that Nas ‘thrives’ in controversial circumstances, epitomised by the brilliant Stillmatic), and his pesky debut album, Illmatic. His debut release was in fact so good, that he is told in every review that he simply cannot compete with his early-20s self. It has worked to his advantage and to his detriment, as we know just how brilliant Nas can be, but consumers and reviewers appear to demand something like Illmatic over and over again, as if creating an LP which nine out of ten rappers could never create at the first time of asking isn’t reason enough to respect Nas’s artistic license.
At any rate, Nas’s artistic purview has remained stubbornly within the realm of gangsta-storytelling and complex non-directed rapping. This is the reality faced by the authenticity Nas claimed for himself in his early years. Due to this, there is an obvious cringe exerted by listeners whenever he deviates from this in search of commercial acumen. When this is attempted, however good the song, (recent examples: ‘Hero’, ‘Make the World Go Round’, and from this LP – ‘Summer on Smash’) Nas temporarily sheds the very authenticity that is central to his artistic credibility; he simply cannot churn out radio-friendly tracks and retain his expressive cogency the way say, a Jay-Z can.
That being said, Life is Good appears to be the most complete realisation by Nas that this is the case. His rhymes feel new, and his old ideas are refreshingly recycled; but where this album transcends recent Nas LPs is in the beat selection. A cursive glance through production credits reveals No I.D.’s prominence (5 out of the 14 tracks) on the album’s creation, which cannot be ignored. The No I.D. tracks certainly display an understanding of what it takes to cater to Nas’s flow. ‘Loco-Motive’ could have appeared on a Nas album in the 1990s, ‘Accident Murderers’ – “You ain’t mean to murk him your gun’s a virgin,” manages to somehow allow Nas and Rick Ross to appear on the same track – despite the huge difference in style, ‘Daughters’ – despite certain lyrical forays into territories which display his age in a light uncouth, “This morning I got a call, nearly split my wig – The social network, said Nas go and get your kid,” – is still a mature track which is made possible by the production. (‘Back When’ and ‘Stay’ are also produced by No I.D. on the LP, and could deserve mentions in themselves.) Salaam Remi delivers some of the finest production credits for Nas since his tri-partite triumph in 2002 (‘Made You Look’, ‘Get Down’, and ‘I Can’) with ‘A Queens Story’, ‘Reach Out’, and the mesmerizing ‘The Don’.
Thematically, as indicated above, Nas finds it difficult to settle into anything in particular. The curse of Illmatic was that, due to its huge success, Nas could no longer speak on the topics explored therein without appearing to self-plagiarise and thus, delegitimise, himself. In 2012 he still raps largely about the same topics as he did nearly 20 years ago – so it appears suspect when Nas raps about those who are, “trapped in the 90s,” – has Nas himself escaped? (This point is of course coloured by the various themes which are dependent on the moment in which the album is created – such as his feud with Jay-Z, his mother’s death, and in this case, his divorce with Kelis.) More and more though, Nas appears to at least realise this, with mini-reflections thrown in to his poeticisms – “I shouldn’t even be smiling, I should be angry and depressed. I’ve been rich longer than I’ve been broke – I confess.” “Can see myself at Presidential campaign dinners, but I’m passing blunts among a bunch of gang members. When you’re too hood to be in them Hollywood circles, and you’re too rich to be in that hood that burped you.”
His reflections on his recent divorce with Kelis, most clearly on the closing track ‘Bye Baby’ (the green dress held by Nas in the cover art is part of his ex-wife’s wedding dress), are a rare glimpse on the personable Nas, the ex-husband Nas, and the (perhaps) slightly bitter Nas – all condensed within a few lines, “Bye baby – I guess you know why I walked away. When we walked to the altar that was an awesome day. Did counseling – couldn’t force me to stay…Why do we mess it up, we was friends, we had it all. Reason you don’t trust men – that was your daddy’s fault…Said you caught him cheatin’ with mom and other woman, fuck that gotta do with us?”
Nasir Jones though, does remain the prime storyteller in rap music. No other artist is able to weave together such darkly picturesque landscapes of urban decay and social deprivation; and where Life is Good succeeds is when Jones delivers such hauntingly chilling epithetic American verse, “The Queen’s courthouse right next to the cemetery – niggas rap sheets look like obituaries.” His consistency is a display of class, and this is best offering in a decade.