Life is Good (to be released July 17, 2012)
Nas' greatest gift to hip hop has always been his biggest curse.
His 1994 debut, Illmatic, is arguably (and if you ask me, factually) the greatest rap album ever laid on wax. Nas became an instant rap icon. But now matter how great his subsequent eight albums were, the reaction remained the same: "It's not better than Illmatic."
Nearly two decades later, that sullen boy on the Illmatic cover is now a man and Life is Good chronicles that journey. Think of Life Is Good as a photo album, offering snapshots of not just Nasir's evolution, but 20 years of hip hop history.
"No Introduction" is a four-minute synopsis of Nas' life — from a kid in the project hallways to getting sage advice from The Notorious B.I.G. to his rise an industry legend, it's all here. From there, the album quickly shifts into an updated mid-'90s sound. It's one of raps most critically acclaimed eras, and the era in which Nas reigned supreme. "Loco-Motion" and "A Queens Story" hit hard, with the latter featuring gritty storytelling that is an endangered species in today's rap scene. The track bleeds right into "Accident Murderers," where Nas even drags a strong verse out of Rick Ross, for once. The throwbacks continue with "Reach Out," a collabo with Mary J. Blige that I swear was pulled from a 1995 Rap City countdown. Like a family cookout with your grandma's potato salad, it's a celebration of hip-hop's roots.
And just like the crotchety uncle at the cookout, Nas gathers the kids to offer sage advice on "Back When." Younger fans might roll their eyes at the elder statesmen who is "here to enlighten," but he's merely serving as an experienced voice of reason. Here, Nas derides misguided youth who blame shortcomings on race, sexual preference, the mafia, and other boogeymen in society (ahem, those dreaded Illuminatiz...). He rhetorically asks "who possesses the testicular fortitude to blow away myths that's a hinderence to all of you?" before deciding to shatter those myths himself. Escobar is equally troubled by society's ills on "World's An Addiction," preaching that "we all need faith cuz the world keeps changing/let go of the illusions." Anyone who has questioned Nas' lyrical prowess will quickly be proven wrong.
While Nas is quick to put society under a microscope, he's equally as transparent with his own life. On the laid-back "Cherry Wine," Nas resurrects Amy Winehouse as he daydreams about his perfect woman. Winehouse's vocals blend flawlessly with the guitar licks, slightly tugging at the listener's heartstrings. And on "Daughters" he struggles with being the father of a teenager, readily admitting that he hasn't been the best role model.
But the biggest peek into Nas' personal life is "Bye Baby," his send-off to ex-wife Kelis. You'd imagine this song would be full of rage and bitterness — I mean, the dude has remnants of her wedding dress draped over his leg on the album cover! Sure, there are quite a few barbs here, but in a sign of maturity, Nas spends most of the track reminiscing about the good times. Best of all, he's quick to tell his haters, "At least I can say I tried, plus enjoyed the ride/Plus we got our little boy, my little joy and pride." He's come a long way from the guy who used to bribe women with "ice."
Even the weakest track "Summer On Smash" — with Swizz Beatz acting like a hyperactive kid who just ate 20 pounds of Pixy Stix — succeeds through sheer willpower. Nas has a laser-like focus on making sure even the most lightweight radio tune at least has witty wordplay to snag your ear. There are no throwaway tracks here.
Early reviews of Life Is Good criticized the album for being "stuck in the past and being obsessed with the life he once had." They're missing the point. The album isn't a rehash, it's a road map, showing how far Nas, and the culture he grew up with, has matured and evolved. This album isn't the usual collection of random tracks. It's Nas' story and, most importantly, the story of the art form we all love.
So, is Life Is Good better than the beloved Illmatic? No, and I doubt anything will ever match it. Life is Good is like a history lesson - it's a combination of many stories and eras. Pitting it against just one story from one era does it a grave injustice. If you were born after 1990 and your favorite rapper wears jeggings, the album might not touch you the way it speaks to fans who have lived through 20 years of hip-hop history. But like every good story, give it a chance and you'll get sucked into its world.
I've spent almost four years reviewing albums for this site and none have been better than this piece of work. Life is good, but this album is phenomenal.
Best tracks: "Bye Baby," "Daughters," "Back When," "Cherry Wine," I can keep going if you like.
5 STARS OUT OF 5