Nas – Life Is Good
Def Jam; 2012
Day & A Dream Rating: 4.5 out of 5
BUY: iTunes | Amazon 

Comparisons will always be drawn between Shawn Carter and Nasir Jones. The two men have found themselves forever linked for at least the rest of their rap careers, first for both daring to be commanding presences in an East Coast/New York City hip-hop scene that was losing its elders and that would, prematurely, be forced to find a new hero with the untimely passing of The Notorious B.I.G. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, for the common link they shared to Carmen Bryan that would incite and ignite a series of diss tracks that to this day generates great debate about which MC “won.”

Most reviews of Nas’s newest body of work, Life is Good, again, spend some time comparing Nas with Jay-Z. This particular review will make one comparison only. When you look at Jay’s most recent work – Watch The Throne with Kanye West, as well as his feature verses – it appears his life really is great. Jay can spit about expensive things, what he can afford versus to the average Youngster with Money man, and he can shout out his beautiful family, his wife Beyonce’ and daughter Blue Ivy. On surface, Nas hasn’t been as fortunate. Recently divorced from she who bore the milkshake that brought all the boys to the yard and even a little doubted as to his capability to assemble a quality album (granted, his joint record with Damian Marley, Distant Relatives, went largely under radar), you’d be hard pressed to say that life is “great” for Nas. However, life IS good. It’s not just an album title, but we’ll get into that.

Instrumentally, Life Is Good is one of the most refreshing entries of 2012. The sentiment “This is for my trapped in the 90s niggas!” that Nas barks out on the No I.D.-produced and Large Professor-assisted “LocoMotive,” could very well apply to many other tracks on the album. “You Wouldn’t Understand,” with its Buckwild-produced riding beat, subtle keyboard in the background and subtler flute in the breaks during feature Vanessa Monet’s breathy chorus, and peppered with references to New York landmarks like the Apollo and the grittiness associated with the city, would have fit right in on the New Jack City or New York Undercover soundtracks. “A Queens Story” bears a beat I could’ve sworn I heard once upon a time on an early one-hit-wonder 90s Black boy band’s (think Soul 4 Real or Another Bad Creation) most popular song, the record scratches thrown in as though to encourage listeners to move their bodies along to the beat. And Salaam Remi marries a piano, horns, and thudding drums with finesse into a jazz-parlor holy matrimony with Amy Winehouse’s voice on “Cherry Wine.”

There are two ways to look at Nas’s album. The first and most obvious approach to Life Is Good is to view it as a collection of reflections from Nasir regarding many of the recent events and misadventures in his life. Life Is Good’s second single, “Daughters,” publically addresses not only Nas’s daughter’s twitter account controversy but also encapsulates the fears that many fathers have for their female children compared to those for their sons (“When he date, he straight – chip off his own papa/ When she date, we wait, behind the door with a sawed-off”). The album’s final track, “Bye Baby,” is the formal public acknowledgment of his dissolution of his marriage. Arguably the most openly honest point of Life Is Good – if not arguably the most openly honest Nas has ever been on wax period – listeners will appreciate the vulnerability that appears on “Bye Baby” in the moment when Nas reflects on he and Kelis’s earlier days, and also in the moment when he attacks his critics in the song’s scathing last verse.

The second, is to see Life is Good as an extension of Distant Relatives, a now-three-year-old project packed with messages of protest, consciousness, and appreciation of culture. Anthony Hamilton’s soulful voice on “The World’s An Addiction” (aided by a sample from The Five Stairstep’s “Something’s Missing”) sets the stage for Nas to tell stories that might as well be parables, replete with proverbs such as “My response to ‘Any advice on what is the essentials of life?’ – I’m just rebellious, not selfish/ Guess we all share different definitions of what wealth is.” “Reach Out” is the opposite of #TwitterAfterDark, social commentary hidden within the guise of 3 AM musings. And somehow Nas manages to bring the conscious rapper out of Rick Ross on “Accident Murderers,” with both men calling out the volatile youth of the present day.

Regardless of which approach you take, it can’t be denied that Nas’s return to music is a triumphant one. While mostly serious and sobering, Life has its fun moments as well, such as the imaginative “The Black Bond” and the potent Swizz Beatz built “Summer on Smash” which will doubtless remain in rotation well into the fall. While it’s no Illmatic, by album’s end, listeners are left feeling more than satisfied and Nas himself seems to declare that, even when times are tough, Life is Good and the music couldn’t be better.