Nas – Life is Good (2012 – Def Jam)

La Vida es Buena

Let it be known that I am a big Nas fan. From his very first baby steps in Main Source’s Live at the Barbecue to his latest single release in The Season, Nas is easily my favorite rapper of all of them (and that’s a lot of good musicians). Really, the 1990s birthed so much in what really became a fantastic renaissance in the music genre. Nas is one of the very few rappers from this time that has managed to remain among the top in 2014, and still beloved by young and old.

To start off, Life is Good is an incredibly cathartic and honest album. In an era of hip-hop and rap where much of the content is boring and infinite about sex, alcohol, money, cars, and narcissism, Life is Good goes in a completely different direction. One complaint that many musicians get is that they abandoned their old style, and Nas is no different. He’s always been told to go back to his very roots in the 1994 release Illmatic, his original (but definitely not only) magnum opus. After years of different themes, issues, and collaborations, Life is Good truly goes back to the original themes of Illmatic, but does in a way that is nostalgic, reminiscent, respectful, and rather hopeful. One might argue that Life is Good is the proper sequel to Illmatic, 18 years on (1994-2012). (Also, for those of you who have gone through a bad breakup, divorce, or were involved in relationships that just didn’t work out and were laden with issues, I suggest picking this album up; it’s like therapy)

The first half of the album  (tracks 1-7) are incredibly strong. Each track really is Nas reflecting on his childhood and teen years; it’s almost as if it were Illmatic in hindsight. The real standout here is “Daughters”, which is very good, but also very nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to listen to (especially to anyone who has had to raise a child, or even is a teen). It’s really something that was never done in rap, but Nas couldn’t do it better. Of course, the album hits a bump in the road when the made-for-clubbing Swizz Beatz-produced “Summer On Smash” plays, and then the less-than-stellar “You Wouldn’t Understand” picks up the pace of the album. Thankfully, the album gets back on track with “Back When”, which is a nostalgic ode to Nas’s rough past, and again it has the “Illmatic in hindsight” type of feel. However, the best is definitely saved for last, and the final 4 tracks of the main album really serve perhaps as some of the finest closing acts in hip-hop history.

“The Don” is a very strong banger, and it just sounds so intoxicating and addicting. Admittedly it’s very club and radio friendly, but it sounds… amazing. You want to listen to it over and over again. It’s reminiscent of what The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac were doing around 1996-97. The whole song is a tribute to the 90s rap scene, and how Nas has somehow managed to live past the expiration date of his other classmates.

After “The Don” though comes “Stay”, perhaps the most cathartic and beautiful highlights of the entire LP. The song is fitted with a somber jazz beat, and Nas raps about his previous failed relationships, and his own experience with love and the way people act in their relationships. Nas shows absolutely no restraint, and it truly shines. It’s the shining gem of an already impressive opus. What follows though is more impressive, with the lady’s hit (but definitely a lot more classier than that label) “Cherry Wine”, featuring Amy Winehouse (who herself had a crush on Nas), a song about 2 star-crossed yet doomed lovers and their failures in dating. The entire tone of the song is very cathartic, as both artists were coming off nasty and failed marriages (Nas with Kelis and Winehouse with Blake Fielder-Civil). Both of their performances are incredibly commendable, and also help serve as the final ride into the closing moment of the album, “Bye Baby”, a very personal vent and reflection on the failed marriage with Kelis. The final song sounds like a gigantic mind-trip, which reflect confusion and disillusionment. All in all, absolutely beautiful and awesome.

The production of the album is strong and varies and Nas makes the best of it. Salaam Remi’s production truly shines here, with joints such as “A Queens Story” and “Cherry Wine”. No I.D. also plays a major part in production, wasting no time in “Accident Murderers”, “Daughters”, and perhaps most strongly in “Stay”. The samples and sources for production include various 1980s and 1990s hip-hop songs, as well as a number of heavy influences from classic jazz music as well, which help cement the nostalgic and reflective hindsight tone of the album. Life Is Good arguably is the true sequel to Illmatic. 

What one really notices about the album though is the themes. Say what you want about hip-hop. It can be conscious, gangsta, narcissistic, violent, misogynist, positive, strange, or a whole lot of other things, but there never really was a rap album that had the themes of an alternative rock album. Nas does this beautifully, and keeping very strong cohesion in the entire album, so nothing feels out of place (not even the Swizz-produced club banger). It all makes sense. It’s really a shame that both 2Pac and Biggie are deceased; it really would’ve been interesting to see them make an album similar to Nas’s Life is Good or even Eminem’s recent release in The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Regardless, the album really deals not only with break-up, but divorce, and looking back on a failed relationship and dealing with the estrangement of a former romance. As I said before, the album teeters on the point of being used as some kind of treatment for this kind of stuff. Even if you never have been married, one can relate very strongly to the content of the album.

Overall, the album definitely deserves a 4.5 out of 5Life is Good, as I said before, is truly the sequel to Illmatic. The production is outstanding and Nas’s rapping is as strong as it is. The only issues are the slow-down caused by the Swizz-produced club track. If “Summer on Smash” and “You Wouldn’t Understand” were removed, and replaced by the deluxe edition bonus track “Nasty”, Life is Good would easily be 5 stars, and perhaps legitimately deserving the label of Nas’s best album ever. I easily recommend this album to anyone. Even if you don’t like rap/hip-hop, at least give this album an exception. It’s truly something delightful and brand-new.

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HipHopRambling: Nas – Nastradamus (1999 – Columbia/Ill Will)

Nastradamus (1999)

Nastradamus might as well live as perhaps Nas’s most infamous work. In the late 90s, things were changing in the hip hop game. After the deaths of both 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., a lot of  attention shifted towards the predominant New York emcees who were roughly at their peak: Jay-Z, Nas, and Mobb Deep traditionally dominated the New York scene, and Eminem had dropped his first album that same year with The Slim Shady LP, as well as Dr. Dre dropping The Chronic 2001. The late 90s marked hip hop entering a transition phase, with both Death Row and Bad Boy collapsing and eventually disappearing from the map for the most part, and the music becoming much more commercialized. The late 90s also marked the rise of the Southern hip hop scenes as well as crunk music, which would dominate the early 2000s.

1998-2000 were quite turbulent times for Nas. Rival emcee Jay-Z was dropping album after album from 1996-1999, and was easily the most commercially successful rap artist during this time. Nas was also under incredible pressure to create songs for radio play that matched the more misogynist themes of Jay-Z. In addition, Nas’s last effort I Am was not incredibly well received (albeit having a number of hits such as Hate Me Now). Nas at this time knew he had to hit a home run with Nastradamus. However, in the end, the album failed to meet expectations.

There are some Nas fans who argue that the album itself was decent, but was derided because of the infamous single You Owe Me that featured Ginuwine. However, there are reasons for why the album was not well received. I’m going to into why it was such a dud.

One of the main problems with Nastradamus is that Nas tries way too hard to be… hard. Nas has never been known to be an extreme hard-ass (although the more mafioso themes in It Was Written were more well received), but it really shows in Nastradamus. The song “Shoot ‘Em Up” is a prime example of this. He goes on about talking about murdering various people in his neighborhood, but it comes off as extremely out-of-character for Nas (it didn’t help that the same song is a prime example of the cheap production that was going on in this album). He even goes as far as to say “kill kill kill, murda murda murda” in the hook, the same words said by 2Pac on “If I Die 2Nite” on his 1995 hit album Me Against the World. Nas simply isn’t a street thug, yet he attempts so in this album. Basically, there’s just way too much thug going on in the album for it to be enjoyable.

It doesn’t help that Nas’s rapping efforts weren’t as good as they usually were, and as the album goes on, it becomes clear there wasn’t a whole lot of quality control going on. If you compare Nas’ efforts on Nastradamus and compare it to say, It Was Written or Stillmatic, you’ll notice that Nas somewhat sounds rather disengaged from this album, practically at his worst. His classic flow that you hear on the original Illmatic or It Was Written is just not there, and is replaced by a more “harder” tone to fit the more thuggish themes that go on in this album.

The production is even worse. The instrumentals sound extremely cheap and that alongside with Nas’s pretty out-of-shape flow indicate this was incredibly rushed. The only memorable instrumental that comes out of here would be the lead title song (Nastradamus). Otherwise, most of the instrumentals sound rather cheap and unmemorable. This was an album that also had Havoc, L.E.S., and DJ Premier handling the production, so there was little excuse for the instrumentals sounding so bland.

The album also lacks cohesiveness as well. There are tracks which go on about Nas’s personal opinions on the state of society (New World and Life We Chose), others which are meant to be shots at Nas’s detractors (Nastradamus, Come Get Me), as well as more misogynist and thuggish tracks that are spread around the album. The album title more or less implies that the album is more leaned towards the philosophical themes that were present in Illmatic, but it sort of comes out as one big “huh?”. There’s so much going on in the album it’s really hard to get at what it’s trying to get across. Illmatic was about the struggles of living in the Queensbridge projects from a more pedestrian perspective with deep philosophical meaning, It Was Written tackled a much more darker side of living in the projects as well as the gangsta/mafioso raps that were popular at the time. But Nastradamus seems confused.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t highlights in the album as well. “Life We Chose” and “Nastradamus” are worth a listen. “Project Windows” featuring Ron Isley is much more closer to the original themes of Illmatic, and again is worth the listen. “Come Get Me” is also a pretty nice track on the album. However, the other tracks in the album are pretty bland and unmemorable, and don’t make up for what else is wrong with the album.

Overall, I’d give this a 2 stars out of 5. The cheap and rushed production, failed marketing, out-of-character rapping, confused themes, and that infamous single really keep down the bright spots that this album had; it was really dark times for Nas around the time. Eventually Nas would re-birth himself with the release of the much better (albeit far from perfect) Stillmatic in 2001 before truly putting himself back on the map and as an important and integral part of the game with 2002’s God’s Son. However, no matter how much you can sugercoat it, Nastradamus was a pretty bad album.