Following a series of albums—that included a couple of controversy-baiting solo projects and a lukewarm collaborative effort with Damian Marley—on which he seemed to lose himself to conceptual experimentation, Life is Good represents something of an anchor in Nas’ catalog. Inspired in part by his very public divorce from Kelis, it’s a deeply personal, often refreshingly self-aware record. It’s also Nas’ most satisfying work in years.
Life is Good isn’t just a monument to Nas’ success; it’s an exploration of him actively working towards finding contentment. And it goes back to the beginning, a wave of nostalgic reflection running through much of the album. When on the grimy “Loco-Motive” he declares that “This for my trapped in the ‘90s ni**as,” he may as well be including himself in that crowd. The recollection of high-stakes living from his youth still sparks something in Nas—“At 17, I made 17 thousand living in public housing,” he boasts on “Loco-Motive,” before raising the braggadocio to blasphemous levels.
Though far removed from the days of having to struggle to put food on the table, Nas still can’t help but sometimes yearn for old times like on “A Queens Story.” It’s partly a manifestation of the social disconnect brought on by his fame and status. Where Jay-Z was left bemoaning the lack of familiar faces in his tax bracket on Watch the Throne’s “Murder to Excellence” (“I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go”), Nas stretches out the theme to an even more lonely place on Life is Good. He notices that he’s “the only black in the club with rich Yuppie kids,” but more than that he’s caught between two worlds: “too hood to be in them Hollywood circles” and “too rich to be in that hood that birthed you.”
Not surprisingly, some of the album’s most poignant moments come from Nas trying to figure himself out as a family man. “Daughters” is evidence of measured positivity done right in Hip-Hop, with Nas taking his teenage kid’s public screw-up as a chance to look inward at his own faults as a father. When he broaches the subject of divorce, he presents two vastly different takes on the experience. “Roses” is a scathing record not so subtly addressed to Kelis, but there’s also the ’90s R&B mood music of “Bye Baby,” on which Nas peels back some of the bitterness and offers a more balanced perspective on their relationship.
That Nas’ rapping—the introspection and the “Black Bond” stunting alike—works as well as it does is due in no small part to the album’s production. No I.D. contributes several great tracks, the organ-blaring “Accident Murderers” and the immaculately soulful “Stay” being the best of the bunch. Sharing the bulk of the album’s production duties with him is longtime Nas collaborator Salaam Remi. Although he remains more suited to laidback, melodic tracks like the Amy Winehouse-featuring “Cherry Wine,” Remi does an adequate job revamping his traditional Hip-Hop sound with a more cinematic edge.
But for as strong as Life Is Good is in most places, a Nas album named Illmatic it is not. Alas, there remain holes to be poked in the record: token crossover attempt “Summer On Smash” is garishly out of place by all accounts and “Reach Out,” “You Wouldn’t Understand,” and “The Don” all sound like the kind of Nas songs that probably won’t age well. But as has not been the case on some of Nas’ other recent projects, Life is Good boasts enough winning moments to overwhelm its shortcomings, allowing it to stand as one of the better late period works of his career thus far.
Label: Def Jam | Producers: Al Shux, Boi-1da, Buckwild, Da Internz, DJ Hot Day, Heavy D, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Nas, No I.D., Noah “40” Shebib, Rodney Jerkins, Salaam Remi, Swizz Beatz