When Nas released his single “Nasty” last summer, it was clear that the Queens legend was at a certain creative place he hadn’t been in years. Over the minimal lurch of Salaam Remi’s beat, he hurtled breathlessly and breathtakingly through the song’s three minutes, meanwhile interpolating Mobb Deep’s “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)”: “Late-night candlelight, fiend with diesel in his needle/ Queensbridge leader, no equal.” It had you thinking, “Oh, this guy”, and it was easily Nas’ best, most impassioned single since 2002’s “One Mic”.
For reasons unclear, “Nasty” didn’t make the final tracklist of Nas’s tenth studio album, Life Is Good – but a batch of songs almost as strong as it did. Rounding up guests like Rick Ross and Mary J. Blige, plus producers like No I.D. and Swizz Beatz, the record is an exercise of Nasir Jones’s versatility and, more impressively, a comprehensive showing of the lyrical dexterity he’s had mastered since he was a teenager in the early ’90s.
Life Is Good has been pegged as a breakup album. Nas cited Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear as an influence for the LP, and that’s the wedding dress of his ex-wife, Kelis, on the cover. But while the record does serve up the great Amy Winehouse collaboration “Cherry Wine”, which spends almost six minutes describing an “immaculate version of ‘Me and My Bitch’ by Biggie,” and “Bye Baby”, where it’s about the “awesome day” when “we walked to the altar”, what’s here is a breakup album of Nas’ own design.
Nas uses his elder-statesman status to narrate the differences (or lack thereof) he sees between the old and the new school. “Accident Murderers” is a tale of literal misfires, reminiscent of 1996′s “Shootouts”: “Missed him by inches, he sprinted/ Some of his boys on the corner was who your bullets entered/ Two of ‘em pulled through, but one didn’t/ son’s finished.” “Loco-Motive” is a puristic throwback for Nas’ “trapped-in-the-‘90s” listeners: “In my truck, play The Greatest Adventures of Slick Rick/ Buggin’ on how his imagination was so sick.” “No Introduction” has lines about Nas’s own impoverished upbringing: “How could I not succumb? How could I not partake?/ 15 I got a gun, 16 I robbed a train.”
Those bars come to life in the music — delivered with confidence, erudition, and passion by their 37-year-old writer. From the opening lines of “No Introduction”, Nas pays especially close attention to the cadence and the enunciation of his lyrics, whether he’s waxing garrulous (as on the second verse of “Back When”) or reminiscent (“Bye Baby”). Most of the knocks on Nas in recent years have been about his supposed lack of motivation or passion. With the vast majority of his rapping here, it sounds like he’s making a concentrated effort to bat naysayers away.
His passion also arcs over the music and production on Life Is Good. After opening with piano and strings, “No Introduction” is catapulted into a fireworks display of bombastic drums and pounding chords. Probably due to the presence of Large Professor, “Loco-Motive” almost sounds like an Illmatic beat, with its fusion of “The Genesis”-like subway ambiance and “NY State of Mind”-style keys. Then, on “Accident Murderers”, a piece of Big Apple classicism is turned emphatic through a monstrous organ sample and a choir. Offering nostalgia trips are the Mary J. Blige- featuring “Reach Out” and “Bye Baby”, which respectively sample New Edition’s “Once in a Lifetime Groove” and Guy’s “Goodbye Love” and which both fuse primal ’80s rap sounds with New Jack Swing. It’s by no means ordinary for a Nas album to have beats with this much character, but considering the involvement of the aforementioned beatsmiths as well as guys like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and 40, it’s not that surprising, either.
As far as missteps go, there are a few here, and they all come in a row: Both “You Wouldn’t Understand” and the party jam “Summer’s on Smash” are too-tangential turns into pop excess, while “World’s an Addiction” simply tries a touch too hard on just about every level. Other than that, though, this is Nas’ strongest album in 18 years and three months– yes, since his debut album Illmatic. The applause on “No Introduction” is there for a reason.
Essential Tracks: “No Introduction”, “Loco-Motive”, and “Accident Murderers”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz: