Let’s just get it out of the way: Illmatic is and certainly always shall be Nas’ greatest work.
That goes without saying, and yet the elephant in the room just refuses to trot on. The majority of the initial reaction to Life Is Good – along with every LP the rapper has released since 1994 – has revolved around comparisons to the opus. Critical attention has obsessed with over-assessing the MC’s every move, tearing his recent albums to shreds seeking either revivalism or forward thinking from the some product, and, depending on the voice, finding both.
Regarding an album that is, in reality, in many ways the antithesis of that legendary debut couldn’t be more limiting. In the long gestation process that led to Life Is Good, and the lengthy hype period the superb single “Nasty” set off, there has been plentiful time for a radical range of preconceptions to be formed. Depending on who you talked to, Nas was either bringing back “true” (however one claim to truly definite it) ’90s rap or simply reattaching his old voice to gain the attention of easily intrigued buzz-eaters.
Neither turned out to be true. While rooted in its voice’s roots, Life Is Good is very much a forward-thinking hip hop album. Album starter “No Introduction” instantly plunges the listener into the epic strings of a full on Justice League banger, which, somehow, gracefully dashes into one of the LP’s ’90s remembrances, the acerbic “Loco-Motive.” By and large, in fact, the sequencing for the LP is flawless. After all, even amongst his greatest defenders, graceful is hardly a word often used for Nas’ recent output. Even on his stronger recent efforts, the New York king seemed without focus or true intent. God’s Son opened with the supreme, James Brown-centric “Get Down” only to awkwardly plod into an ungainly Eminem production on its next track; Street’s Disciple sagged under the weight of its double disc presentation; his most recent solo LP, the infamous Untitled lost its way between the brilliance of “Queens Get the Money” and a certain desperation for material, mired in political rants that couldn’t help seeming a bit facetious.
Forever dogged by the weight of expectations, Nas seemed, quite simply, at a loss as to what the hell he should say, and simply sought to appease. In the end, this is what brought back the phoenix from the ashes: Nas began rapping for himself again. If Illmatic is the voice of the youthful Nas, Life Is Good is the grown man chapter. Essentially gone are the attempts to appear a younger man–in his place, there’s a bedraggled, tired, and ultimately genuine Nasir. Which isn’t to say the man’s lost his spark; if anything, he’s more vibrant and dominant than ever. “Daughters” tells a story of fatherhood with grace and honesty, “World’s An Addiction” is just about as heavy as it sounds, and even the Rick Ross featuring joint, “Accident Murderers,” focuses on condemning senseless violence, rather than glorifying it.
Essentially, the strength of this album derives from precisely what was missing in the Nas’ recent work: a cohesive, certain purpose. Many feared the worst when longtime collaborator DJ Premier didn’t show up in the album’s production credits, but as it turns out, Nas specifically told the producer, “Next time, I promise.” Rather than the old school, street-ready approach of Premier, Nas sought out two masters of the smooth, No I.D. and Salaam Remi, and it was his sureness that served him.
The album, nearly without fail (the Swizz Beatz-handled “Summer On Smash” is undeniably a weak spot), seamlessly flows between Nas’ tales of adult celebrity life and his woe regarding ex-wife Kelis. The latter is a large focus of the record, with the final three tracks in particular packing a startlingly honest punch from an MC known for depending on his persona. “Stay” presents Nas half-angry and half seeking reconciliation, desperate and alone, followed by “Cherry Wine,” which boasts the much talked about Amy Winehouse appearance.
Considering the inevitable effect of posthumous work, one might have worried for the track, yet it turns out to be one of the album’s strongest moments. As Nas flows between a relaxed chorus from the fallen singer (and rumored lover, it’s worth noting), a brilliant juxtaposition is created between his final refrain of “Life Is Good, yeah Life Is Good” amidst the humming of a friend who wasted hers far too young.
Nas, her elder, understands more than she ever could, which makes the final, accepting, nearly emotionally vacuous nature of “Bye Baby” all the more hard-hitting and meaningful. Refusing to settle for less, or fall back completely on his superb presentation – as Nas so often has – makes Life is Good the most exciting Nas album to come around since It Was Written, which itself was a rehash (albeit a great one) of the rapper’s debut. This album is the most original work one of the greatest MC’s of all time has released in more than a decade. Conversations you hear about it may focus on the obvious: is Nas retracing his steps, is he cheaply jumping sounds, and they will all of them be misguided. An album of this stature, from an artist of his stature, will inevitably be chewed apart, peered at from every angle, until its dissected past reason. We’d all do better to simply appreciate a blessing when it falls into our lap.