Nas: Life is Good – Review

 

Few hip hop artists have managed to remain relevant after extended stints in the game. Even the most legendary of stalwarts (Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, for example)have failed to match the output that sparked their respective rises to prominence as they stumbled into the modern era; either holding onto tired mechanics or failing to evolve into something more.

In recent years, and after the release of several sub-standard records, it seemed as if Nasir Jones was doomed to suffer from this inevitable slump into irrelevance, crushed under the weight of forever trying to emulate the classic Illmatic.

Purists and casual punters alike seemed to be stuck in a perpetual spiral of disappointment, buoyed by the misguided optimism that came with almost every new album. ‘Will this be the new Illmatic?’ ‘Will Nas finally save hip hop?’ Record after record, all touted as ‘returns to form’, came and went, falling flat in almost every department. It seemed as if the Queensbridge rapper had developed a penchant for poor beats, muddled concepts and tired rap mechanics.

After a 4 year wait, which came at a particularly turbulent time in Nas’ personal life, and months of build-up, anticipation for Life is Good was at an all time high. However, this anticipation was primarily of a cautionary nature, as after the string of disappointments, this album would define Nasir’s place in the modern era of hip hop.

The question on everyone’s lips seemed to be:

“Would this album snap the losing streak and save the rapper’s deteriorating image, or would Nas prove that he no longer has a place in contemporary hip hop?”

Whilst the answer is not quite as black and white as the question posed, I can emphatically say that Nasir has truly arrived at a new point in his life and in doing so, the King of Queens has delivered a genuine contender for hip hop album of the year; if not album of the year.

Undoubtedly Nas’ most important release since his iconic debut (as it represents a career-defining turning point in his life), it can even be argued that it’s his most complete record since he broke out onto the scene as a fresh-faced 17 year old with Illmatic.

Nas it at his finest when faced with diversity, and after his very public and rather vitriolic split from Kelis, he had more than enough fodder with which to drawn upon for his 10th studio album (an impressive feat in its own).

One of the most striking aspects of the albums is the upfront nature of Mr Jones, as he exhibits a vulnerability that is seldom-seen in modern hip hop and is becoming exceedingly rare (especially amongst the more hardened emcees, such as Nas).

It’s refreshing to find a rapper that doesn’t mince words or dance around the subject. On the opening track No Introduction and throughout the album’s entirety, God’s Son makes it incredibly clear that this album is about his ex-wife Kelis, as he intimately details the untimely demise of their relationship.

“I wrote this piece to get closure / Some of y’all might know Kelis / This goes to her with love.”

But as the odes to his ill-fated relationship on Stay and Bye Baby depict, his outlook is not one of resentment, but that of appreciation and thankfulness.

This outlook is one of striking maturity and reflects the overall sentiment of the album and its underlying message that life really is good. In the face of so much adversity, Nas manages to find the silver lining in his current situation, musing that although he should be depressed, he’s been able to accept what life has thrown at him and appreciate the brief time he spent with Kelis, comically stating in Bye Baby “You screaming at the racist cops in Miami was probably the highlight of my life.”

In retrospect, Life is Good is by far one of the most mature hip hop albums of recent memory, lined with the kind of insight that only someone with a wealth of life experience could deliver. Nas touches on a wide range of topics, from the plight of the socio-economically underprivileged to the perils of fatherhood and the deterioration of a loving union. However, despite the ambitious thematic scope of the album, Nasir’s down to earth insight prevents it from devolving into a disjointed mess.

Within Nas’ reborn persona, he seems to have shed many of the vices that plagued his releases throughout the period of his career after It Was Written. Most notably, production-wise, Life is Good is arguably one of Nas’ strongest ever outputs. The emcees’ infamous ear for sub-standard beats seems to have completely abandoned him. A lot of this praise can be attributed to long-time contributor Salaam Remi and the evergreen No I.D. who assist on 11 of the 14 tracks and are largely responsible for the success of this record.

The ambitious thematic scope of the album is matched by its varied production and tone, which Nas seamslessly adjusts to track-after-track. Life is Good is a stunning reminder of the Queensbridge rapper’s chameleon-like versatility, as he effortlessly transitions from a hardened, veteran of the streets (Accident Murderer) to a vulnerable father-figure struggling with parenthood (Daughters).

Salaam, No I.D. and the other featured producers on the album produce an innovative, modern sound that juxtaposes Nas’ 90s flow with modern beats.

Daughters is probably one of the strongest indicators of Nas’ progression; not only as a hip hop artist, but as a human being. From his humble beginnings as a 17 year old upstart trying to make a name for himself, Nasir has matured significantly, as he shares intimate details on the trials and tribulations of fatherhood. The song itself not only deals with Nas’ introverted issues, but looks to address the stereotypes and afflictions that plague the majority of our female youth in modern society.

However, despite the evolved sound of the album, certain tracks (such as Loco-Motive) return to the sought-after 90s Boom-Bap aesthetic. Although featured, Large Professor takes a back seat on the track, relegated to the ‘Flava Flav’ hype man role. In the past, Nas has more often than not stumbled whenever he’s tried to emulate the aesthetic of Illmatic. However, he manages to capture a sense of that initial magic and boldly declares that this track is for the ‘trapped in the 90s ni**as”.

Another track the older-heads will inevitably gravitate towards is A Queens Story. Referencing the infamous KRS-One lyric “Queens keep on faking it”, it’s Clear that Nasir is on a crusade to prove Queensbridge rap has come a long way since The Teacha’s venom fueled assessment of the NY borough. This track is a love letter to the bridge, from the crack dealers to the street hustlers, against orchestral production that will surely resonate amongst many of Nasir’s older fans and aficionados of Queens rap.

The album’s faults are few and far between. This being said, the Swizz Beatz track Summer on Smash is quite clearly the low point. Although the track itself is by no means bad, it is overly generic, uninspired and ‘safe’, with Swizzy sticking to a formula and cooking up a lukewarm radio friendly effort.

Furthermore, of all the outstanding guest verses the record boasts, Mary J Blige’s contribution on Reach Out unfortunately falls flat in comparison. The chemistry doesn’t feel right and MJB’s vocal are at odds with the production, which seems less focused than the other tracks on the album.

The album closes with a knockout punch of 4 equally outstanding tracks that solidify the album’s status as one of the releases of the year. In the Super Cat-assisted track The Don, Nas goes in hard over a frenetic, high-octane beat that sets an insurmountable intensity through its jarring and repetitive, yet wholly compelling composition.

In contrast, Stay is laced with a soothing jazz riff and vocals that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the late J Dilla’s legendary beat tape Donuts. The track provides the perfect change of pace after the frenetic and arresting The Don, both sonically and lyrically and features a notable absence of percussion. Alongside Bye Baby, Stay is quite clearly one of the more poignant tracks on the album that deals with the conflicting emotions surrounding Nas’ ill fated relationship.

Quite simply the track of the album, and arguably one of the strongest hip hop crossover tracks of the year, Cherry Wine showcases Amy Winehouse’s undeniable talent and serves to amplify the gravity of the tragedy surrounding the loss of such a talent.

The most upfront track of the album is fittingly the closing track. Immediately recalling the ambience of 90s RnB, frequent Drake collaborator Noah’40’ Shebib steps outside his comfort zone to pair with Salaam and craft a fitting closing track that provides Nas with the closure he so greatly desired.

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Standout Tracks: Cherry Wine, Daughters, Bye Baby, A Queens Story, Stay, The Don

Final Thought: This is the new Nas and like it or not, he’s here to stay. Life is Good is focused, poignant, mature, and the strongest hip hop release of 2012 so far.

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