The tenth proper studio record in just under two decades from the man responsible for the greatest hip-hop LP ever made (that’s 1994′s Illmatic), arrives on a tall wave of universal praise. “Nas is back,” the lanky crowd of critics have shouted in tired unison, few likely worthy of critiquing a genre master with the ability, history and influence of one Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones. Here’s the thing: Life Is Good is absolutely a good record. Undeniably so. It’s the best Nas record since It Was Written, the man’s second disc, was released in 1996. It’s a return to form in that the emcee has once again, after 16 years of cloudy, misled mediocrity, released an album with more than three worthwhile tracks on it. All that said, Life Is Good isn’t perfect.
For starters, three of the discs’ best tracks – including last winter’s hit single, “Nasty” – are only included on the pricey Special Edition of the album. (Poor form or foolishness?) Secondly, Life Is Good (speaking here of the Special Edition, as that’s the only one worth owning), is, at 18 tracks, far too long for the modern attention span. My other three big complaints are the same three things I’ve been griping about since Nas’ third album, the mediocre I Am, was released in 1999. (1) Nas’ beat selection is as inconsistent as they come; and while most of the beats on Life are damn good, there are six productions that can’t even begin to hang with the rest of the disc. (2) Nas likes to build songs here and there around terrible R&B hooks, and he does here five times. Simply put, Nas has ridiculously poor taste in R&B vocals. (3) Nas can’t help but try to put a few industry hit type tracks on all his albums. Call ‘em his “Jay-Z tracks.” We get four of them here and, while they do all sound like possibly radio hits, none of them fit in with the album’s 11 or so best tracks, all of which fit the perfect boom-bap mold in spirit. They’re corny and obvious, and don’t highlight the good in Nas’ ability.
So, now that we’ve touched on the many issues and shortcomings of Life Is Good (mainly the middle section of the album, the handful of cheesy R&B hooks and the few unnecessary attempt at radio hitdom), I’d like to say some nice things about the disc. When Nas is in full-blown Queensborough emcee mode, he is, along with Q-Tip and maybe Andre 3000 (remember him?), the best hip-hop album maker we’ve yet seen. The heaviest factor of Life’s success can be credited to the six new beats we get from the man who is, for my money, the best living hip-hop producer, No I.D. (see last year’s The Dreamer / The Believer for further proof). The No I.D.-produced songs alone make Life Is Good not just the second best Nas record ever, but probably the best hip-hop record so far of 2012. They’re that good, both because they all sound like classics and because they bring out the hardest working version of the emcee.
Nas’ now-long running producer pal, Salaam Remi (the man often credited, along with Mark Ronson, for Amy Winehouse’s success), offers up eight beats, most of which are reasonably strong – if not as organic and Nas-worthy as No I.D.’s tracks. The tragedy, I suppose, is that if we took the 11 best cuts from this 18-song collection, we’d have a hands-down hip-hop classic, rather than a bloated-but-good disc that’ll make you add wear to your skip button. We’d have one of the all-time great hip-hop discs. A record that shows one of the genre’s biggest talents finally writing some songs with mature themes. Sure, Nas is still stuffing many of his songs with all the familiar old cliches (I’m rich; I’m good in bed; I’m the man in my neighborhood; I’ll live forever because I’m special; I like to buy stuff because I can; etc.) But he’s also writing about fatherhood and divorce while once again penning some beautifully cinematic stories about New York City street life. Could it be? Will Nas be the first hip-hop artist to release middle aged records for mainstream audiences?
As hip-hop grows up incredibly slowly, so does Nas. And, along with the stellar production and born-again writing/vocal fire, the increasingly mature mind behind Life Is Good is what makes the record this real deal. Is Nas back? I wouldn’t put it that way. He never lost the ability to make a good song or write the year’s greatest verse when he felt the drive to do so. He’s been doing these things all along, if only here and there. The closer Nas gets with Common (the other great aging legend of the genre) and No I.D. – a duo whom he’s supposedly working on a collaborative record with – the more he seems to remember how to make good records. And wIth nine or so new classics spread throughout, yes, it’s safe to say that, with Life Is Good, Nas has finally reclaimed his throne.
1. “No Introduction” (J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League) – 8.5/10
2. “Loco-Motive” (No I.D.) – 10/10
3. “A Queens Story” (Salaam Remi) – 7.5/10
4. “Accident Murderers” (No I.D.) – 9/10
5. “Daughters” (No I.D.) – 10/10
6. “Reach Out” (Salaam Remi) – 8/10
7. “World’s an Addiction” (Salaam Remi) – 6/10
8. “Summer on Smash” (Swizz Beatz) – 6/10
9. “You Wouldn’t Understand” (Buckwild) – 7/10
10. “Back When” (No I.D.) – 10/10
11. “The Don” (Salaam Remi and Heavy D) – 8/10
12. “Stay” (No I.D.) – 10/10
13. “Cherry Wine” (Salaam Remi) – 8/10
14. “Bye Baby” (Salaam Remi) – 7/10
15. “Nasty” (Salaam Remi) – 10/10
16. “The Black Bond” (Salaam Remi) – 8/10
17. “Roses” (Al Shux) – 7/10
18. “Where’s the Love” (No I.D.) – 9.5/10