Life is Good—the title of New York MC Nas’s ninth studio album—offers a sentiment at least as much aspiration as it is declaration. Though the undisputed king of the New York hip-hop scene in the late ‘90s, Nas has had to contend with a troublesome decade, falling from the top spot and seeing a simultaneous decrease in his album sales and credibility. After repeated comeback albums and a signing to former rival Jay-Z’s Def Jam stable, Nas has achieved a degree of late-career stability, but his place within the hip-hop hierarchy is still an open question.
Like all his albums, Life is Good places Nas’s personal experiences within a narrative context. Before checking out that album (which you should), listen to these tracks, which give some perspective on the career of hip-hop’s introspective, poet laureate.
1994 “New York State of Mind,” Illmatic
From Nas’s classic debut record, Illmatic, this track offers a rundown of the young MC’s New York milieu, offering an uncompromising portrait of the drug violence that dictated life in the city during the mid-‘90s.
1996 “If I Ruled the World,” It Was Written
Though it received criticism for its attempts to achieve a success beyond the boundaries of the hardcore hip-hop scene, “If I Ruled the World” reiterated Nas’s agitprop approach to racial politics, a through-line that has only become stronger later in his career.
2001 “Ether,” Stillmatic
By 2001, chinks were beginning to show in Nas’s armor. A prolonged absence from the public eye, precipitated both by his tumultuous relationship with his daughter and his mother’s prolonged battle with cancer, left Nas in a position vulnerable enough to be sniped at by another of New York’s most predominant MCs—Jay-Z. “Ether” fires back at Jigga with maledictions both brilliant and perhaps a little bit desperate.
2006 “Black Republican,” Hip-Hop is Dead
Hip-Hop is Dead earned more attention for its media-grabbing stunts than for its actual music. Even while the album sold at a lackluster pace, its title, release via Jay-Z’s Def Jam label, and collaborative track with Jay-Z himself secured Nas a fair share of public scrutiny, even as the LP fell short of the comeback coup he had been banking on.
2012 “Cherry Wine,” Life is Good
Despite the 2006 death-knell he sounded for his chosen genre, Nas (obviously) went on to create much more hip-hop. At this point, his career embodies several such contradictions: he became famous rapping about the streets, but he’s now exceedingly wealthy; he wrote at least one certified classic album, but he will probably never again reach that level of renown; he maintains his dedication to African American issues, but is now part of the very media machine that set about obscuring those issues in the first place.
“Cherry Wine” offers the finest example of Life is Good’s many attempts to reconcile these paradoxes lyrically, a project at which Nas manages a remarkable success.