Nas - Life Is Good
At the end of Loco-Motive Nas shouts out to all his 'trapped in the 90s n***s', proclaiming 'This is for y'all'. It's the most significant line on the record, an ad-lib that I'm sure was thrown in as an after thought due to the stunningly accurate mid 90s production and Nas' aggressive unemotional flow as he speeds through a brief history of his beginnings and his current surroundings. I say it is a crucial ad-lib because it's the state that Nas finds himself in. I've wanted to write an in-depth post on the miracle and enigma that is Nasir Jones for some time, I'll save you the length though. In the late 90s, Jay-Z and Nas were the two best rappers alive. It was an epic duel, their battle will go down in hip-hop history as the defining modern clash, the way in which we all had hoped the Biggie and 2pac beef had gone down, no casualties. Illmatic was a certified classic, it ranks in my top 5 hip-hop records of all time. As the decade progressed however, his output faltered. Nastradamus was a tame attempt to go commercial and I Am... was a descent in to madness, throwing off his street-wise and book earned intelligence in favour of blatant ghetto crassness.
Then Stillmatic came out and proved he still had this hunger, belief, and god-like ability to make classics. Then we lost him again, a slave to the unfortunate dual pressures of being a credible hard-edged rapper as well as creating commercial success. Jay-Z chose the commercial route from his third album, and he balanced the two pressures brilliantly. Nas was unable to strike a balance that worked for him. He never scaled the commercial heights he seemed destined to, and yet when he did go platinum his street cred seemed to diminish. It was a clear issue for him, rather than push through it and focus on one side or the other he kept attempting to please all parties, whilst tirelessly working to justify that giant expectation that the world seemed to have of him.
Life Is Good comes out of nowhere really. It's been four years since the politically charged Untitled, a record that was composed with frustration and disappointment and presented as frustrating and disappointing. He's 38 now, a grown man with grown man issues, not the least of which his heavily publicised split with wife Kelis. That alone should provide ample content for a record of lost love and broken heart jams. I love the title however. It isn't a concept album, this isn't a touchy-feely christian themed sunshine fest. On Loco-Motive he raps 'my religion is reefer' so it's nice to know that at 38 it's still cool to smoke weed, and that in the last 20 years he has lost none of his youthful leanings. It's not some grandiose exercise in wealth appreciation either. This is back to his roots Nas, he doesn't rap to please anyone but himself on this record and it's refreshing.
His age is no limiting factor, in contrast it's allowed him a grander view on life. Rather than let it dictate his focus, he's let it fill in gaps to produce a much fuller experiential spectrum. On Daughters, an excellent No I.D. track, he raps 'At this point I realized I ain't the strictest parent / I'm too loose, I'm too cool with her / Shoulda drove on time to school with her', it could be any parent blaming themself for a childish misdemeanour, it's so grounded. Back When sees a contemplative figure, drifting again back to his halcyon days of the early 90s 'The ill reminisce and think about the fly daysNothing like them 80's summer NY days' but it houses the most introspective lyric he's ever laid down at the end of the track, 'I don't get the credit I deserve / That's why I hate doing interviews / But I don't sweat it, study long, study raw / My man Dion said Nas over-think the songs he writing / I'm not a wack performer standing near a corny hype man'. It's at this moment you see a grown man. He's outlived his own self created competition. He's identified his demon and slayed it in one line, and the result is a relaxing in to his own talent and skill and we finally recieve the Nas album he has promised since Illmatic. Loco-Motive is the greatest example on the album. It's a rambling strain of conscious thought that excites and informs, and features some of his hardest lyrics in years. It also features this gem, 'I know you think my life is good cause my diamond piece / But my life been good since I started finding peace' which qualifies the album and its feel. He had it all 4 years ago - one of the hottest girls in the game, a brilliance-laced rap career and money. Lot's of money. But he didn't make Life Is Good, he made an angry resentment filled Untitled. He's lost his girl, he's started to lose his cred, it's 2012 but Life Is Good for Nas, and it's all his own making.
Special mention has to be made to the production on this record. No I.D. showcases his talent firstly on the brilliant Loco-Motive, which somehow manages to feel like the cousin of Halftime off Illmatic. On Back When he mimicks that wonderful Common / Chicago flow he's forged a career producing, and Nas slips in to it like his favourite pair of shoes. Stay is another gem, this weird bluesy jazz riff that Nas doesn't attempt to flow with, he just spits over the top of it and it has this wonderful disjointed feel, like a spoken word 3am jazz joint track that wakes you up and teaches you a life lesson. I also have to highly commend the best track on the album. Cherry Wine, with Amy Winehouse's ghostly presence, is stunning. Salaam Remi produces it, and possibly because of his association with both Nas and Winehouse he marries this immediately recognisable Nas beat with some akin to Me and Mr Jones from Back To Black. Winehouse is brilliant on this track, she wails 'And I’m alone, and I realize that when I get home' whilst Nas get's his best eHarmony profile on and lays down about his ideal woman. It's not his most groundbreaking track but the Winehouse hook just drags you in and holds you, contrasted with nas' quick pace and emotionless delivery her stuttering emotion-laden voice feels like hot coffee being poured over ice cream the effect is mesmerising.
7.5/10. I was good and ready to slate this release and throw it on the rack of Nas' growing list of disappointments. But it's surprising. It's a homage to his untouchable days. The entire album has a mid to late 90s chill to it, and Nas perpetuates it with his less than demonstrative delivery and that unmistakeable flow that he has perfected. He doesn't try to do anything weird here. He hasn't produced a hit single with the exception of the surprisingly excellent Summer On Smash, but even that song doesn't feel forced as previous efforts have, it came naturally. There are some skippable tracks but overall you'll be feeling nostalgic and it'll encourage another spin of Illmatic. And that's always a good thing.
Best Tracks: Loco-Motive, Daughters, Summer On Smash, Cherry Wine