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.