Despite the fact that he has written some of the most iconic hip-hop of all time, recorded a string of double-platinum-selling albums, and married an honest-to-god sexual icon, it’s somehow still possible to feel sorry for Nas. I’m going to speculate that this owes less to the New York MC’s fall from “Very Top of the Game” to “Near the Top of the Game,” but rather to his perpetual insistence on being too smart for his job.
Whereas perennial rival Jay-Z has rarely expressed qualms about toning down his rhetoric in the interest of creating a hit, Nas has proven unable to reconcile his pugnacious political convictions and prodigious intellect with the ambition that fueled his rise. It’s the awkward cohabitation of these elements that makes Nas such a fine MC, and Life Is Good such an astonishing late-career coup.
Drawing its lyrical constituent from such topics as his divorce from Kelis (“Stay”), the pointless violence of the NYC drug trade (“Accident Murderers”), and his own shortcomings as a father (“Daughters”), Life Is Good valiantly defies what could have been Nas’s latter-day senescence, instead mining the most uncomfortable aspects of the MC’s life for fantastic lyrical grist. Throughout the album’s chronicle of minor defeats (and, to be fair, a goodly number of triumphs as well), Nas returns to his assertion that “life is good” with the rhythmic insistence of a mantra. Having lost the top spot in the hip-hop world to Jay-Z, seen his marriage go through an especially ugly dissolution, and watched the days of certified platinum sales pass him by, Nas has elected to apply himself to his art with greater energy than ever. As usual, he’s at his best when he has something to oppose.
On “Accident Murderers,” Nas finds his straw man in “violent adolescents, homicidal with weapons / Not a lot of knowledge in they minds, that I’m guessing.” “The Black Bond” finds him combating entropy itself, laying down lines like “I’m a f*ckin’ juggernaut / Never sleep, never tire” to compliment his laundry list of jet-setting luxuries. When rapping about Kelis (never named, though strongly implied) the vitriol sometimes overwhelms his better instincts, resulting in promises that “locked up, I would knife you.” These tendencies, however, form the exception in an album that for the most part recognizes and sticks to its strengths.
Funk, jazz and dub (dub, not dubstep) influences create a sonic pallet befitting Nas’s deft, intellectually vigorous lyricism. A menacing organ sample, courtesy of No I.D., makes “Accident Murders” the album’s undisputed standout track, whereas “Cherry Wine” juxtaposes a slinky Amy Winehouse sample against Nas’s emphatic flow. Life Is Good’s production applies its energies toward the creation of nuance, rather than following hip-hop’s current inclination toward affected bombast. Like Nas himself, Life Is Good strives to find new successes, rather than recreate old ones.
On “Loco-Motive,” Nas raps, “I know you think my life is good because of my diamond piece / But my life been good since I started finding peace.”
While Life Is Good makes it clear that “peace” is at least as much a matter of aspiration as it is reality for the MC, it also proves that Nas’s work is all the better for his continued striving.