Music

Nas: Life Is Good (take one)

Nas tries to power through uneven production with fiery raps, but the sad truth is that the self-conscious way Life is Good is put together undermines his energy and intention.


Nas

Life Is Good

US Release: 2012-07-17
Label: Def Jam
UK Release: 2012-07-16
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Since his debut, 1994's Illmatic, Nas has been an artist in search of his next classic. He's produced some solid records -- Hip Hop is Dead for example -- but never quite hit it out of the park again. Part of the reason Nas has run into trouble comes from the baggage his albums always end up carrying. Stillmatic is uneven, but mostly hampered by the now-dated Jay-Z diss track "Ether". Hip Hop Is Dead is undone by its titular claim, not because Nas was right or wrong, but because it leads to a lot of defensive derision aimed at the culture that is, apparently, not giving him due respect. And Untitled has its own well-documented title issues, but in the end the fact that it wasn't called Nigger the way Nas wanted it to be isn't a problem nearly as much as the fact that the album was a watered-down version of the excellent DJ Green Lantern-produced Nigger Mixtape, a far more interesting album.

So Life Is Good comes as the latest attempt at rediscovering full-on greatness for Nasir Jones. To that end, Nas succeeds, except when he doesn't. For all the energy here that was sorely lacking on its predecessor, this album is still wildly inconsistent, suffering from swaths of bland production and unfinished thoughts. This is unfortunate for basic reasons, namely that Nas is a rapper who is easy to root for, the kind of artist who genuinely loves what he does. It's also sad because everything about Life is Good suggests starting over, from the artwork that finds Nas holding his ex-wife Kelis's green dress, to how much these songs take stock of the past -- not to relive it but to move beyond it, on to the next thing.

Despite its shortcomings, Life Is Good does confirm that Nas is on a shortlist of truly gifted emcees, and in fact he may be one of the most purely thrilling rappers to hear in modern-day hip-hop. The flows top to bottom are immaculate here, verbose but smooth, intricate but seemingly effortless. He starts the album with a subtle brag with "No Introduction", sending up the idea of the rap album intro while letting us know that he needs no introduction, and he dives right into a childhood tale of hunger and how poverty leads to drugs and violence. "How could I not succumb?" he wonders outloud, with genuine regret inflected in his voice, reminding us of his pure storytelling ability. It may juxtapose with the gangster swagger of the next song, "Loco-Motive", but you can see the connection between regret and pride here, and his intent to make his tale somewhat cautionary does float on the outskirts of the song even if it's never really delved into.

The best line that runs through Life Is Good pits struggles of youth against the stresses of fame and money. There's a nice mirror held up on songs like "A Queens Story" when Nas moves from the present where "it's foul what this money can do to you" to a younger, more hungry and perhaps necessary hustle. "Accident Murderers" deflates the romantic vision of violence by portraying stray-bullet victims and the carelessness and codelessness of gunplay. "World's An Addiction" also delves into excess, and on a particularly striking third verse, Nas raps the backstory of a doctor during surgery, tension mounting over his broken marriage despite his millions. In those moments we see not only that money doesn't alleviate problems -- that's nothing new -- but that also with wealth comes problems we invent. Nas meanwhile seems eager to leave his troubles behind -- he namechecks and apologizes to Kelis on the opening track and admits more than once his infidelities and other past transgressions -- which gives us a personal example of these big ideas he throws around.

As interesting as it can be, though, Life Is Good is also full of half-done ideas -- things that could be compelling, but either don't quite get there or take too long to get to the point. "Accident Murderers" has a fascinatingly detailed last verse, but you suffer through the by-the-numbers gun tale of verse one and Rick Ross's flossing verse, which does nothing for the song (but does plug Ross's upcoming album, God Forgives, I Don't). Similarly, "World's an Addiction" delivers two bland verses about excess before hitting on the doctor's tale. "Daughter" may be the most puzzling tangent on the record. It finds Nas in father mode, and it gives him an opportunity to compare raising a daughter with the misogyny all too often inherented in hip-hop music. But while he does admit to "being on some pimp shit", he avoids the hypocrisy of his perceived lifestyle and instead goes into protective father mode. When he talks about her Instragram-ing a box of condoms, he claims he should have been more strict rather than connecting it back to the casual sex in his own songs -- in another track here, he boasts "I fucked your wife, she a groupie".

It's a sadly missed opportunity on an album that ends up having too many. On top of these thematic misses, the production is uneven throughout. While No I.D. kills with the deeply nostalgic, soulful beats on "Loco-Motive", "Back When", and elsewhere, other producers stumble. Nas smirkingly dedicates an early song to some "stuck-in-the-'90s niggas", but then falls into that trap on "Reach Out", a bland tune that finds Mary J. Blige sadly phoning in the hook. "Summer On Smash" is produced by Swizz Beats who himself sounds out of date and stale and turns in one of the most clunky club tunes of the year. Salaam Remi, who produces a ton here, both hits -- with "A Queens Story" -- and misses badly -- again, see "Reach Out".

Still, you can hear Nas trying to power through middling production with fiery raps, but the sad truth is that the self-conscious way Life Is Good is put together undermines his energy and intention. It's an album that, as a product, taps into nostalgia in more sinister ways. The admittedly excellent "The Don" mentions the fact that it's produced in part by the late Heavy D, and more glaringly Nas' lukewarm collaboration with Amy Winehouse is squeezed into the end of the record. It's hard to not see these as ways to get more folks to buy the album, and on top of that, a song like "Nasty" becomes just a bonus track on the Deluxe Version of the album. Months ago, "Nasty" (the best song here, or not really here) ignited excitement about the upcoming record, and the fact that it's been moved to the more expensive version of the record in favor of lower quality tunes featuring dead celebrities feels like a cash grab.

So Life Is Good becomes the latest Nas album that doesn't quite do what it could. While Nas is rapping as best as he can here, the album as a whole is decent but too inconsistent to be anything more. The real trouble is the way Life Is Good is being brought to us, because what was a sometimes flawed yet noble artistic statement has turned into a poorly constructed product too obviously built to maximize profit. Nas seemed determined to leave external baggage behind. Unfortunately, someone in marketing and production came up with some new baggage for his album this time around.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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