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 5. Life 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.