Nas NasLife Is Good
There are record sleeves that say it all. The one for “Life Is Good”, the tenth studio album by Queensbridge rapper Nas, is one of those: the artist appears sitting on a couch in a club, with a glass of champagne in his hand, alongside the bridal gown Kelis wore, now his ex-wife, at their wedding in 2005. This is a post-breakup album, not a common category in hip-hop, where the expression of real feelings after relationship failure isn't really an option. Moreover, in the case of Nas and Kelis, there's been a stormy court case concerning the cost of maintenance of their son, including accusations flying back and forth, all in the public eye, which gave the whole a little extra tabloid shine, raising the expectations for this LP. What also helped was that this is his first solo release since 2008 (in between, he did a project with Damian Marley), and that it's his tenth full-length, which many thought could mark a return to the essence of his beginnings.
The problem with Nas over the past few years hasn't been his refusal to work with the same crew he made “Illmatic” with, thus satisfying the wishes of his followers, but that after his debut, his best record's been “The Lost Tapes”, which wasn't really a proper album but a compilation of discarded material that, paradoxically, showcased Nasir Jones' best virtues. Lost in complacent albums, wrong decisions, megalomaniac outbursts, and senseless pig-headedness, the rapper was wasting his bottomless talent with out of place productions, failed attempts at crossovers, and conceptual excesses that made no sense at all, much to the desperation of his fans. “Life Is Good” corrects some of those mistakes, and is the best possible peace pipe for his followers in 2012. Firstly, with a clear idea of the sound needed for the unique lyrics: funk and soul essences, thriller-like atmosphere and a very cinematic sound, as the ideal setting for the stories he wants to tell.
And the pieces are starting to fit together: “You Wouldn’t Understand” is a tribute to the haphazard life of the 80s, for which Buckwild sampled the nostalgic “Let’s Start Love Over” by Miles Jay, showing up The Lox and Nelly, who used the tune before. “A Queens Story” - without chorus and only featuring four verses, quite the structural frivolity at the service of one of the lyrical highlights of the album - plays with thriller orchestration to accompany an ambitious and overwhelming trip to the past in his native Queens. It’s a piece of incredible poetic talent full of references, winks and twists that are hard to decipher. “Loco-Motive”, on the other hand, is an undeclared “N.Y. State Of Mind III”. Although camouflaged, it's all Nas: a hard beat, a spiralling piano, and lyrics that could only come from New York, with a final dedication that speaks for itself, “This is for my trapped in the 90s niggas”. We accept it as a clear and explicit concession to those who still want a new “Illmatic”.
“Accidental Murders” flirts with the sound of Maybach Music, but beefier and more cinematic, to launch a lucid diatribe against the posh gangsters and the gangsters with no sense of community. And, of course, there's the soul. Soul is his weapon of choice for the three fundamental moments to understand what “Life Is Good” is all about. One: “Daughters”, produced by No I.D., the main architect of this return to greatness, sounds like it could be from Common's “Be”. It is deeply evocative, not only because of its musicality, but also because of Nas' take on fatherhood. The story of how his teen daughter is in love with a hustler (and, like himself, an MC), shows his rejection of a boy who represents everything he stood for when he was that age: “She heard stories of her daddy thuggin’ / So if her husband is a gangster can’t be mad, I love her”. Two: “Bye Baby”, another synthetic, 80s soul piece, is the song on which Nas deals with the conflict of his divorce, mixing familiar reproach (mostly blaming Kelis and her faulty upbringing) and memories of the good times they spent together. And three: “Back When”, another No I.D. soul bomb and an extraordinary string of memories of his early days as a rapper in Queensbridge.
It's not all brilliance and excellence on “Life Is Good” ( “Summer On Smash” wants to be a club hit, but doesn't quite cut it; “Reach Out” is recycling Isaac Hayes' “Ike’s Mood” for the umpteenth time, something Nas has done a little bit too often over the years; and “World’s An Addiction” is a failed attempt at sounding transcendent and dramatic), but even with its flaws, it's his most consistent and powerful album since “Illmatic”. It may seem the artist made a deliberately nostalgic album, but it's actually more a celebration of life. In a way, Nas is telling us that, in spite of all the problems and dramas of recent years, there are reasons to be satisfied with what he's achieved, and to be optimistic about the future. A tough childhood turned into success, fame and hip-hop talent, the memory of those who went and those who are still there, his kids as an incomparable personal legacy, the good moments in a failed relationship and the will to become the best again. On “Life Is Good” there is pain, melancholy, and some score-settling, but most of all, there is one conviction: in spite of it all, life can be grand.