In 1994, before he’d even turned 21, Nas introduced himself as rap’s new voice with Illmatic, a tight-knit series of street-corner cautionary tales. On Nas’ Life is Good, out today (
In 2009, his four-year marriage to Kelis dissolved. More recently, reports revealed that Nas allegedly owed $6 million in taxes, in addition to the $55,000 in child and spousal support that Kelis demanded for their son Knight Jones. While Nas does address these bits of gossip in Life is Good, he also makes clear that he’s yet to really make sense of it, by trading lyrical precision for a more conversational tone. Some of his admissions are endearing. “Not saying sons are any less important,” he says in “Daughters” — a cop-out of a chorus, but also precisely what an egalitarian father would learn to say. Some are far more awkward: “I want you dead under six feet of soil / At the same time, I want you hear to witness me while you’re in misery,” he says in “Stay”.
But instead of dwelling on what he hasn’t figured out, Nas spends more time revisiting stories he’s already told as producers-in-crime No I.D., Salaam Remi and even Illmatic‘s Large Professor help steer through savory boom-bap beats. In “A Queens Story”, complete with a “Sucker M.C.’s” sample (“You all know how the story goes!”), Nas sprints through his list of hometown role models-turned-casualties. In “Reach Out”, he boasts of being “too hood to be in Hollywood circles” and “too rich to be in the hood that birthed you” without a twinge of regret, over that reworking of that DJ Hot Day mix and with the ever-reliable Mary J. Blige. Sparks fly in the Rick Ross collaboration “Accident Murderers” as Nas erupts in a tough lecture to foolhardy, trigger-happy youth. The Maybach Music Group honcho manages to keep up, spit for spit, over a delicious Hammond organ lick.
Then there’s “Cherry Wine” — a carbon copy of “Hey Nas” from 2002 career highlight God’s Son, a list of criteria for his future wife that he’s barely revised aside from one major change: trading out the breathy Kelis (the two of them had just met) for a pristine Amy Winehouse chorus. At first, the track feels like a missed opportunity. But after a few listens, the reiteration works. Life is Good isn’t just for trapped-in-the-’90s listeners, and it isn’t simply a midlife crisis album. It’s Nas sounding 10 years younger, in an apt reminder of, simply, what works.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: Or was it? In a perfect retro-rap world, “Reach Out” would be a big summer hit. That said, “Accident Murderers” already released as a single, is deservedly so.
Pops Like: In parts, Life Is Good plays out as if 9th Wonder immersed his rhymes in his own sublime retro rap production. The album’s biggest misstep, “Summer on Smash” featuring Miguel, is a Jersey Shore club anthem in which Swizz Beats commits an act of self-plagiarism by ripping off the rhythmic gait he originally created for Drake‘s “Fancy.”
Best Listened To: First while drinking beers with friends, then at home while sipping Hennessy.
Idolator Rating: 3/5
— Christina Lee