Oftentimes, the challenge for the established Hip-Hop act is remaining relevant amongst a peer group of hungry young rhymers in their twenties. The greater challenge, however, is proving that his once-revered stamp of authority wasn’t been lost whilst he pursued a career far beyond his expectations.
Fortunately for Nasir “Nas” Jones, his aura of an empowering, Mario Puzo-like storytelling wizard has been far from compromised, even during his most difficult period both as an artist and a man.
Facing a highly-publicised and costly divorce whilst seeing a dozen new emcees rise in the ranks, Nas, considerably at a low point, decided on naming his tenth studio album Life Is Good — a title many saw as a tongue-in-cheek stab at his obvious problems and worries. But to discredit an emcee who (arguably) verbally disposed of one of Hip-Hop’s all-time greats, remained conscious in the face of commercialism, and created rap music’s great body of work with Illmatic would be a grave mistake. Life Is Good finds the Street’s Disciple returning to the booth with new scars and emotions to express; the question, however, is whether the end result is artistic genius or merely a tacky soap opera.
In preparation for Life Is Good, Nas’ guest features alongside the likes of Common, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross provided several moments of fire and created momentum that carried right into track one. “No Introduction” (produced by the Justice League) briefly remembers the boy Nasir’s journey of growing up to become the revered rapper, even making reference to his recent divorce from singer Kelis.
While sentiment is referenced throughout Nas’ tenth LP, early indications that God’s Son would run roughshod over heavy productions are confirmed in the two singles leading up to the milestone release. The hardcore New York sound blends with Dancehall vibes on “The Don,” and the violent thump of Nas’ riot-starting ode to the Big Apple is sure to bring much enjoyment to the older heads. “Nasty” turns the clock back to the early 90s, as Nasir’s off-the-hinges pimp verses and distorted audio recording takes listeners back to 1992 when he first graced the stage.
Life Is Good seemingly pays homage to the many years of God’s Son’s career. With boom baps, DJ cuts and jazz breaks making up the majority of the beats, Nas ensures that his verses remain hungry and piercing as ever, whether he’s storytelling or simply declaring that life is indeed “good.” On the train ride that is “Loco-Motive,” Nas reconnects with his mentor, Main Source rapper/producer Large Professor, who aids his longtime student in a feet-stomping head nodder declaring the Queens emcee as victor over all obstacles. Channeling the narrative excellence found on It Was Written, “A Queens Story” gets intricate with the hood occurrences, with Nas playing both narrator and protagonist in the stories of tower blocks, bank robberies and more.
Not remaining stuck in the past, Nas recruits many of today’s leading rap mafioso figures to aid in his chronicles — most notable being Rick Ross on “Accident Murderers.” Stomping menacingly through the No I.D.- and Salaam Remi-composed orchestration, Nasir’s brazen message aimed at false killers is backed by a solid Rozay feature, making them two-for-two when they join forces.
Whilst some have critiqued the veteran for doing so, Nas has been successful in transforming from street soldier to communal representative due to the power and depth of his wordplay. The heart-tugging “Daughters” speaks openly about two somewhat alarming circumstances that occurred with his teenage daughter Destinty. The everyday stresses of fatherhood plus the added pressure a child feels from having a rapper as a Dad are all addressed with a level of emotion that makes this one of the more engaging father/daughter rap songs ever produced.
Regardless of the machismo and reflection on painful times, a handful of exceptional tracks fully justify the optimism-filled album title. Swizz Beatz and Miguel take the New York emcee away from the cold, East Coast beats (mainly provided by Chi City’s No I.D and Salaam Remi) for the seasonal anthem “Summer On Smash.” For a rapper who hasn’t been fortunate with made-for-radio jams, this track is executed rather successfully, with Escobar thriving in Swizzy’s sun-drenched productions. When recollecting on “Back When” and toasting to his newfound riches on “You Wouldn’t Understand,” Nas’ stress-free stanzas reflect a man who has truly overcome the various battles he has had to endure, rhyming without tension or venom.
The climatic point of Life Is Good, however, arrives on Canadian super producer and OVOXO rep Noah “40″ Shebib‘s composition for “Bye Baby” — a track that fully addresses the free-falling elevator trip that was his marriage to Kelis. Appropriately sampling New Jack Swing group Guy‘s “Goodbye Love,” Nasir kicks down the door to expose tales of distrust, paranoia and even some tender moments, a story that ultimately leads to his costly divorce. Owning up to his mistakes, Nas bravely trawls through the brief honeymoon period, but refuses to use the cut to slander the mother of his son.
For a man whose sparkling career has been somewhat dampened recently by bad decision making, inconsistency and more, Life Is Good fully cuts out a majority of those flaws to once again put Nas on top as the premiere emcee. Whilst album sales, sponsorship deals and several live tours will be left to the younger generation of rappers, Nas has established that with age comes wisdom, and when such knowledge is injected into music, the end results are near classic. Take away the at-times repetitive references to street stories and Nas’ delving into family matters, the album fully exemplifies what it means to maintain a career and schools cats on the art of rhyming — a good display what Hip-Hop at the age of 38 should sound like.
From the mature pursuit of love on the Amy Winehouse-assisted “Cherry Wine” to the early morning jazz-inspired “Stay,” Nas shows no signs of trying to corner the new wave of fans; instead, he pieces together tales to inspire and give musical hope to those who spent much of the 90s deciphering his complex verses.
On the best album he’s recorded in the last ten years, life no longer seems to be a bitch for Nas, but instead a beauty that has truly inspired him to craft yet another near classic.
Watch our SoulCulture TV interview with Nas below