Having released the classic 90s b-boy theme music of ‘Illmatic’ as his debut album, Nas has found himself questioned for an apparent failure to match it with his subsequent albums. However, such criticisms are more than unfair on the highly talented New York rapper. With twenty years of hip-hop recordings under his belt, it should be no surprise that Nas has moved on from his ‘Nasty Nas’ days. Maturity has set in as Nas has grown, but his lyrical gifts, and the ability to bring listeners into his world with the clarity of a Martin Scorsese movie, have not left him.
‘Life Is Good’ certainly shows some nods to the street-level, New York b-boy that still resides in Nas, with tracks such as the vintage break-boasting, ‘Reach Out’ (featuring Mary J Blige), and the hip-hop history lesson of ‘Back When.’ Nas’ lyrical pictures flow through these tracks, as the much-respected word-smith sprinkles personal insight and knowledge through his rhymes. ‘Accident Murderers’ sees Nas spitting like a raw project MC with a deft flow as Rick Ross steps up to offer his own ‘hood tales, while, elsewhere, ‘A Queens Story’ sees Nas dropping hard for his home.
There are, of course moments that see Nas stretch from the straight-up b-boy vintage. ‘Loco-Motive’ sees Nas joined by Large Professor for a hard-hitting, personal insight, while the superb, ‘Daughters’ offers a genuine look at Nas’ feelings for his own daughter, as it also offers an anthem “for my brothers with daughters.” The cinematic production of ‘World’s An Addiction’ featuring Anthony Hamilton, acts as something of an interlude in the album, with his apocalyptic string arrangement, before ‘Summer On Smash’ sees Nas showing he can take his style to the clubs too.
The head-nodding, ‘You Wouldn’t Understand’ sees Nas once again display his straight-up swagger as Victoria Monet smooths things out with her beautifully delivered hook. Break-out single, ‘The Don’ seems like something of an anomaly, with its dub undertones and uncompromising beats-and-rhymes style. However, it deserves its spot on the album as Nas rides the looped-up production with authority. As such, the gentle keys, brass, and strings of the mellow, ‘Stay’ come as a respite even as it offers a contrast to Nas’ grittily honest rhymes.
The late Amy Winehouse can be heard lending her talents to ‘Cherry Wine,’ as her blues-laden vocals compliment the snare-driven break and Nas’ vocals. ‘Bye Baby,’ Nas’ highly personal lyrical letter to ex-wife, Kelis, sounds cathartic for the Queens MC who obviously felt the split deeply. While the 14-tracks as presented on the regular version of the album definitely hit, those who want more can seek the ‘Deluxe Version’ of ‘Life Is Good’ to get an extra four tracks. In fact, if there is a grudge with this release, it is the choice to leave the extra tracks from the normal release of the album, either they are good enough, or they are not?
‘Life Is Good’ will certainly please Nas’ long-standing fan-base, as he stays true to his New York roots, rather than trying to chase trends at this point in his career. Of course, he has always been savvy enough to know that he needs to deliver something for the radio, and there is plenty on offer to that end here. While taking in the clubs and the streets, Nas shows his versatility without losing his sense of self. Indeed, the album’s strongest tracks may be those where Nas offers a personal edge. However, in fact, this album doesn’t have strong or weak points, just different moods and themes, as Nas’ rhymes remain on-point throughout. With enough b-boy swagger to please the ‘Illmatic’ die-hards, yet showing his maturity at the same time, Nas’ ‘Life Is Good’ has more than enough to recommend it.