Nas – Life Is Good
Buy: Life Is Good
Now hip-hop is not exactly my specialist subject, but I am quite a big fan of Mr Nasir Jones so I felt I had to give his new album the once over. I’m not a total hip-hop noob though, I know enough to get by as slightly more than a casual observer. For instance, I know Kanye is a bit of a douche, a half-decent rapper and a brilliant producer. I know Jay-Z is pretty overrated but still good in a ‘mainstream’ kinda way, whereas Big Boi, on the over hand, is largely underrated. I also know Nas’ debut Illmatic is one of the few albums that actually deserves to be labelled a masterpiece.
On top of all this, my knowledge also extends to the fact that Life Is Good has been Nas’ most heavily marketed album yet, and that this probably has more to do with his tax/divorce issues and the need to make money than its musical merit. Obviously that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a very good Nas album – which may not be up there with his best, but comfortably fits in with the likes of It Was Written and Stillmatic as best of the rest.
It may not do ‘Nas the artist’ any justice to frame a review of Life Is Good around the whole taxman / Kelis issues, but it’s impossible not to. The whole album, like all good hip-hop albums tend to be, is a product of the artists life. So we have the positive-outlook-in-times-of-trouble theme mixed in with the slickest, most ‘professional’ production ever on a Nas album – which is just begging to be bought in bucketloads to alleviate some of his cash money problems! But let’s not criticise an artist for making an accessible album and wanting to sell records…
The positive theme and nostalgic undertones of Life Is Good is nothing particularly new to Nas, but the slick production is and it stands out immediately on the opener ’No Introduction’. Where previous Nas albums have (mostly) featured street-slang heavy, gritty, spoken-word intros, Life Is Good opens with a lush piano-led intro which lays on the drama in spades with electric guitars (!?) and Nas’ full-on vocal delivery (encompassing everything from meeting Biggie to giving ‘Saudi their oil back’).
A lot of Nas’ brilliance lies in the way he doesn’t have to rely on big, bells-and-whistles production to be engaging. Just give him a basic beat and let his flow sweep you away. Before fans get too concerned, Life Is Good isn’t a massive diversion away from his usual formula – but it does crucially miss a bit of the old charm.
It starts off amazingly though. ’Loco Motive’, ’A Queens Story’ and ’Accident Murderers’ suck you straight back into Nas’ soulful, energetic and effortlessly cool world, while single ’Daughters’ slows the tempo nicely. So far the richer and smoother production seems to be working well, especially on ’Accident Murderers’ (featuring Rick Ross) which builds up from delicate piano notes and backing harmonies into a dramatic beat framing Nas’ inspired narrative exposing the fake bravado within gang culture: “Accident murderer / Act like you killed on purpose / Liars brag you put work in / You didn’t mean to merc him / Your guns a virgin…”
Almost inevitably this good start doesn’t last, and Life Is Good starts to suffer from the layers of production. The Mary J Blige featuring ’Reach Out’ is not a particularly bad track, but it’s 90’s overkill production feels a little off. Nas rescues it with a couple of cool verses though so it’s not a total misstep. Which unfortunately cannot be said for ’Summer On Smash’, which comes off as an uninspired attempt to crowbar a hit summer single into the album.
The album gets back on track with ’You Wouldn’t Understand’, which wisely puts Nas’ vocals back centre-stage to play off Victoria Monet’s lovely chorus. ’Back When’ is, unsurprisingly, a nostalgic track with Nas rocking the ‘to know where you’re going you need to know where you’ve come from’ vibe. ’The Don’, which I’m sure you’ve heard by now, is the last of the ‘big production’ numbers and leads nicely into the chilled-out ending of ’Stay’, the brilliant Amy Winehouse-featuring ’Cherry Wine’ and ’Bye Baby’ – which sees Nas serve up a no-holds-barred deconstruction of his marriage.
Life Is Good is an album that both suffers from, and is enhanced by, Nas’ private life. If the production was toned down slightly we would probably be talking about a brilliant, confessional masterpiece. As it is, it’s just a plain and simple really good album.