Ten albums of growth have led Nas to the point of peace where he can finally exclaim that life is good. Long gone are the pissy project elevators and shootouts in the streets. Decades since the murder of Ill Will, various beefs, and the death of his mother, a whirlwind marriage and divorce have all gotten Nas here. Nas has not only gotten stronger, but he has evolved.
From beginning to end, Life Is Good is packed with layered, rich production that seamlessly shifts from record to record. Salaam Remi and NO I.D. craft a well-balanced work that even at 18 tracks (deluxe version) never compels you to press skip. There are orchestral arrangements, stirring strings and dynamic production that leaves sample-based production for well-crafted, score-driven landscapes.The brilliance of “No Introduction,” with its calming strings, crowd noise and symphonic piano alternate with organs and pounding, crescendo-building drums provide a stadium feel as Nas brings you up to speed like the summary page on a book, pulling you in but not giving away the story. The menacing “Loco-Motive” speaks to those listeners trapped in the 90s cats for whom everything pales to the Golden Era desire production and lyrical advances. Large Professor’s vocals add to that throwback feel while Nas delivers the vivid imagery that has become his calling card:
At night, New York eat a slice too hot use my tongue to tear skin hanging from the roof of my mouth
He segues effortlessly to the riveting “Queens Story,” masterfully combing through the murders of Black Jus, E Moneybags and Stretch Walker in seconds, incidents that took authors whole chapters. “Queens Story” is a celebration of the survivors still here to raise a glass and serves as nod to perseverance and advancement. The track ends with a rousing verse bathed in piano-powered fury as Nas closes with a flurry that very few dead or alive could match. “Accident Murderers,” featuring Rick Ross, scolds the copycats who ape that street era without the understanding of its consequences.
From there we get the emotionally potent “Daughters,” where Nas’ fatherly faults and love are on full display. “Reach Out” is a gift for the mixtape-raised 90’s cats, featuring Mary J on the hook and break beat samples providing the aural backdrop.
“World Is An Addiction” features Anthony Hamilton and speaks to how the evils of the world conspire to take you off your path. Many people who look like they shine are afflicted with their own demons and Nas warns against idolizing people just because they look like lool righteous. Swizz Beatz avoids his bell and whistle bullshit for the banging “Summer On Smash,” reminding you that Nas can rock the club. The addition of Miguel on the “life is good” hook is hypnotic while his “verse” adds a surprise element to the track.
“You Wouldn’t Understand” is a lesson to those who think that high life and riches were easy to come by; a long road full of pitfalls led to his ability to prosper. Again he traces the path to his success through evolving. “Back When” continues that theme, reviewing his past and mining it for elements that have contributed to the man he would become.
“The Don” serves as another riotous club hit and Heavy D’s last gift to Hip-Hop, leaving the beat for Nas. The poignant “Stay” with its horn-driven jazziness and crooning is urban contemporary Hip-Hop, shouting our hard working family men, his son and warns against groupies that can put the good life at risk. It also speaks to how we get trapped in situations and the machinations that find us remaining in less than optimal situations.
The bittersweet “Cherry Wine” reminds us of the special chemistry that existed between Nas and Amy Winehouse. Her Jazz sensibilities and Salaam’s musical direction are the perfect complement to Nas’ verses about the woman that he wants in his life.
“Bye Baby” addresses his marriage and subsequent divorce to Kelis. Amazingly the song is absent of ill will as he notes the highs and lows of their run with no regrets and with a smile. “Nasty” takes the album back to the hood with a rapid-fire cadence full of dense lyricism and a tribal drum that reminds you if Zaire and the Thriller in Manilla.
From there, Nas creates cinematic imagery with “Black Bond,” putting his narrative powers and his worldliness on full display, conjuring imagery light years beyond Illmatic‘s “New York State of Mind.” “Roses” stands in stark contrast to “Bye Baby” with a few lines directed at Kelis with hopes of lessons learned and a hint of vitriol. The album ends with Cocaine 80’s- featured “Where’s The Love,” summarizing his present state of mind as he pensively stares out his hotel window. It’s time for rappers to grow up. The masquerade as the CNN of the streets is over and it’s time for a generation of emcees to move on and leave those streets to the youth.
Most mainstream rappers are plagued by arrested development; they remain the same age of their first album or they can’t get away from their original motivation. We are Maggie Simpson, still sucking the pacifier 20 years later. Nas has made the transition from “Life’s A Bitch” to Life is Good and Hip-Hop has finally proven that there can be transition. Life can evolve from survive to thrive without collateral damage. History will mark that this album proved that rap can be a country for old men.
Out of 5
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