Nas: Life Is Good (take two)

Welcome back to the realm of excellence, Nasir Jones.


Life Is Good

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2012-07-17
UK Release Date: Import

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.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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