Life Is Good
It was 1994 when Nas released his debut album Illmatic, which helped strengthen the on-the-rise East coast hip hop scene all the more. Since then, he has released nine more albums, almost all of them being the same level of dynamic quality as his debut. Sure there were slumps here and there, a few rivalries sparked up (most infamously with Jay Z), and the birth of his mainstream success, but none of these things have ever seemed to phase Nas. He has always seemed to stay consistently on par making his own brand of jazzy, instrumental-based hip hop with tack sharp, socially poignant lyrics flowing over the back beats like wine through the gullet of Dionysus himself. The only thing that seems to separate Life Is Good from the rest of his albums is that it took him two extra years than it normally does for Nas to put the album out. Not that he took the time to recreate himself in any large way, but maybe to recover from the loss of some friends, the divorce from his wife Kelis (which is a primary theme in the album), and to try and figure out his place in hip hop once again, which I believe is still near the very top.
Nas has always been very good at pulling a wide range of eclectic sounds and making them work in hip hop. With all the different brands of hip hop that are currently being spewed across the hip hop scene and interwebs (i.e. Kanye, Lil’ Wayne, Killer Mike, El-P, Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, The Roots etc.), it is really amazing to see someone stick to their roots and pull off an incredibly “old school” vibe that still fuses well with today’s music. That is exactly what Nas did with Life Is Good. He hasn’t changed his ways, but he still manages to stay on top of his game. There are actually parts of Life Is Good that sound so much like they came from the 90’s (“You Wouldn’t Understand”, “Bye Baby”) the only way you would know the album was produced in 2012 is the content of the lyrics. Then, you have the other side of the album that sounds innovative even for today’s sounds. “A Queens Story” fuses a sick Salaam Remi beat with a very dark, intimidating orchestra, and then wraps up with a spiraling piano line that just leaves Nas spitting crazy venom all over the top of it. This flows perfectly into the piano line to “Accident Murderers” that plays like a classic killer Nas track. Beautiful piano, haunting background vocals, and harsh-as-hell lyrics. The track sounds like it was made for Kanye’s Dark Fantasy … and being produced by No I.D., there is no doubt it was at least heavily influenced by it. The back-to-back combo of those two songs followed by “Daughters” is the highlight of the album for me. But just cause Nas climaxes early doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in his reserves.
The rest of the album has it’s ups and downs, but it never totally falls apart or loses interest. It does come close when Swizz Beatz takes the reigns. While on the subject I would like to dispute the right for Swizz Beatz to continue to get lines in hip hop tracks. I don’t care how good you are at making beats, when you continue to completely fail to put words together to complete a thought, you should not be lyrically featured in a song. All of his lyrics in every feature I have heard from Swizz are repetitive, nonsensical, and lack any hint of intelligence. Instead they are loud, annoying, and were seemingly written by a three year old Mexican child that knows very little English. Luckily, Nas pulls us listeners out of the downward spiral and recovers the rest of the album.
After a nice surprise from classic 90’s hip hop producer Buckwild, the rest of the album is a steadily flow of Salaam Remi and No I.D. with a some nice posthumous guest surprises from the hands of Heavy D and the voice of Amy Winehouse. Amy’s appearance on the album is just another reminder of why we should miss her more than we realize. “Cherry Wine” is as good as any posthumous track released by Amy and the way her and Nas sound together is a match made in heaven. With the way that Salaam Remi, Mark Ronson, Amy, and Nas all sound/work together, I wish to God were able to be gifted by a full LP collaboration album with that entire crew. Unfortunately “Cherry Wine” is as close as we will ever get to that.
For a year so already packed with great and diverse hip hop albums, this is just another one to add to the list. Nas may not be new, but he sure does bring some new things to the table with this album, all whilst never loosing the style and flow that made him one of the better MC’s of all time to begin with.
Can’t Miss: “A Queens Story”, “Accident Murderers”, “Daughters”, “The Don”, “Cherry Wine”
Can’t Hit: “Summer On Smash”, “Stay”