Welcome back to the realm of excellence, Nasir Jones.
When Untitled was released four years ago, it felt like a major crossroads for Nas' career. Two years prior he'd declared the death of hip-hop, or simply warned of its imminence depending on which publicity wave you believe. Following that gimmick with an album originally titled with the darkest racial slur in American history and an album cover featuring the letter N whip-scarred across his back (as a footnote, Nas claimed to be a Columbia Records slave on The Lost Tapes) was a risky move for Nas, one that could have seen the general public label him past his prime, unable to sell without gimmicks.
But the album's fiery political stances and a reinvigorated Nas made for an album that ended up being his most entertaining in years. That made it a little surprising when he got wrapped up in a divorce suit just a few months after its release, a life change that eventually sent him on a creative tear through all sorts of uncharted territory, including Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and DJ Khaled collaborations and a co-LP with Damien Marley, as well as making out of place appearances on Young Money's The Carter IV, Careless World and Roman Reloaded.
Alongside all of that was the release of street single "Nasty", included here on the Deluxe Edition, along with promises to return to the sound of Illmatic (or at least It Was Written) and that "Life Is Good". Being an artist whose courted controversy ever since he got "God's Son" tattooed across his stomach, however, you've got to take notice of that cover art before you even think about giving the CD a spin. That's a hell of a cover, the ghost of Wedding Day Kelis draped over Nas' knee as he sits in an all black room, pondering how the past became the present. It's an idea that goes beyond Kelis, who truthfully doesn't factor into the LP much other than a brief mention on "No Introduction" and the closing set of tracks on the album proper.
"Loco-Motive" and "A Queens Story" are a pair of No I.D.-produced boom bap bangers that see both artists assuming the positions of their original primes, with Nas delivering deliriously detailed-yet-scatterbrain story raps with vintage It Was Written density while No I.D. pretends he's still producing for Battle Rap Common, not Gap Common. Large Professor handles bridge duty on "Loco-Motive", consistently revealing it's "for [his] stuck in the '90s niggas", and later in the album Nas goes full nostalgic with "Back When". No I.D. and Salaam Remi, who handle the bulk of the album's production along with contributions from Buckwild on "You Wouldn't Understand", J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League on "No Introduction" and Heavy D (R.I.P.) on "The Don", enhance this feeling of fond memories that pervades the album with samples of Guy, New Edition, Super Cat, MC Shan, Run-DMC and Rakim throughout the record.
But it's not all about looking back. "A Queens Story" will undoubtedly be the record most old-time Nas heads gravitate towards initially or indefinitely, but for my money its when Nas embraces more modern production styles that he both succeeds and fails the most spectacularly. Over the past decade most Nas listeners have come to expect the majority of his production won't be particularly mind-blowing, an argument that's thoroughly implausible throughout Life Is Good. There are certainly a few tracks that won't fully connect with listeners, sure: Anthony Hamilton collaboration "World's an Addiction" is incredibly melodramatic with big, swelling string sections and Hamilton's husky vocals being put to nearly questionable use. "No Introduction" aims for a churchy vibe with its Kirk Franklin sample but just kind of lays there in limbo, buoyed by Nas' ecstatic performance.
And "Summer on Smash" is just a train wreck, a record that surely could have been replaced by bonus tracks "The Black Bond" or "Roses" and everyone would have been much better off. Miguel raps instead of sings (which, after the Art Dealer Chic free EPs blowing my wig earlier this year, is soul-crushingly disappointing), Swizz Beatz says "Summer on Smash" a lot and Nas raps about women he wants to have sex with. It's an incredibly bland song that normally wouldn't elicit much of a reaction either way, but after the intense honesty of "Daughters" (on which he frankly discusses his daughters' misdealings with incarcerated love interests and Instagram'd condoms) and the verse that closes "World's an Addiction" (detailing a doctor struggling to operate on his patients rather than finish a plot to murder his adulterous ex-wife) it's just a bafflingly out of place club jam. It doesn't suit the album anyway, but especially not there.
Other than "Summer on Smash", however, those failures are mostly minor and don't have much to do with Nas (or even the production) so much as one's personal taste. Someone somewhere is going to love those songs. The important thing is that Nas fails to mail a verse in even once on this record. I'm not sure if he heard Elmatic while he was recording this album or what, but the man is just on fire throughout the album. It's what allows him to do stuff like "Stay", a blunted little jazz rap that would feel right at home on a Curren$y or Damu the Fudgemunk release if not for Nas' admissions-via-verse to a woman and a male friend that he still wants them in his life even though he doesn't get along with them very well anymore. Or "Bye Baby", the "Goodbye Love"-sampling closer of the album proper that along with "Daughters" is probably the most honest we're ever going to hear Nas as he details his relationship with Kelis from hanging out with her and her labelmates at the Neptunes' Star Trak studios to her arrest in Miami in 2007 to their divorce in 2009.
Perhaps most notable about the track isn't the honesty, but the compassion Nas still has for Kelis -- "Kim" this track certainly isn't. Just as Nas seems to be in a rather excellent place musically, as he nears 40 he seems to be admirably content with his lot in life as well. He might lament his daughters' actions and his ex-wife's ex-wifeness, but combined with tracks like "You Wouldn't Understand" and "The Don" that have Nas explaining what he's proud of accomplishing and "Cherry Wine" (an Amy Winehouse duet that serves as an all too apt reminder of the incredible talent we lost last year) revealing his eagerness to find a woman more in line with his own tastes and values, Nas really seems more assured of himself as an artist and person than he has perhaps ever.
If you're willing to buy that, then the Deluxe Edition is surely the iteration of Life Is Good you'll want to hunt down. Not only does it have "Nasty" on it, but "The Black Bond" on which Nas imagines himself as a sort of James Bond figure sans MI6 night job and the "Roses"/"Where's the Love" duo, where Nas gets a little more mopey over the divorce than the album proper. Mostly these tracks serve to further erase the existence of "Summer on Smash" from memory banks, but they're really quite interesting in their own right and could have easily replaced any of that six through eight run, "No Introduction" or "Accident Murderers" if Nas allowed them to. But truthfully "Summer on Smash" is the one dud, the one unexciting in any way moment of the 71 minutes and eighteen tracks included on the Deluxe Edition, an incredible feat not just for Nas in 2012 but for a hip-hop release in any decade.
Of course, it's far too early to claim Life Is Good is Nas' best album since It Was Written, but this sort of grown man rap that's usually relegated to the obscure careers of men like Kam Moye is exceptionally refreshing to hear coming from Nas, especially as peers like Jay-Z and Cormega mostly continue to spin their wheels on the same track. To describe Life Is Good most simply, it's the first Nas album in a decade that can be recommended without any sort of disclaimer, any sort of "this album is good, but for Nas...?" And that's tremendously exciting both today and for Nas' future records. Hip-hop is vibrant as ever in 2012, and Life Is Good proves to be a major example of why.