ALBUM REVIEW: Life Is Good


After nearly two decades of enduring a temperamental youth driven genre, Nasir Jones finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard margin of error. He's a paramount lyricist in an industry that no longer values nuance lyricism. At once a flagship artist and iconic relic of a storied era, Nas is expected to satisfy his pitchfork-wielding fan base and provide a viable product for Def Jam to peddle to urban radio on each full-length outing. In what should be twilight of his career he's refrained from pandering to either constituent, instead opting to challenge himself artistically.

History will inevitably twist Life Is Good into a heartwarming and heroic return to form, but Nas' tenth solo effort is the final leg of a remarkably focused trilogy. 2008's Untitled album was released on the heels of Barack Obama's ascent to the oval office and the United States' worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. By Esco's own admission, 2010's Distant Relatives served as a therapeutic crutch for his tumultuous personal life, but the unifying concept was also a logical transition from the racially charged atmosphere that inspired Untitled. Both projects were anchored by grandiose central themes, and sans an unseasonable Chris Brown collaboration, Nas stuck to those scripts through and through. Similarly, Life Is Good was built around the most ambitious theme an artist could possibly embrace. A motif as all-encompassing as human consciousness is quite a formidable task. There's a thin line between relatable and cliche, and that divide is perhaps even more delicate in rap music. Fortunately, Nas' life has been sensational enough throughout the years to warrant an audible memoir. Much of Life Is Good celebrates antiquity, but to fault him for front-loading the record with adolescent reflections and young adulthood memories is as shortsighted as expecting a biography to open on the subject's 38th birthday.

Nas isn't attempting to relive his past, but rather illustrate the chain of events that lead to his present. His ascent to stardom and fall from grace are equally essential to the album's narrative of karma and redemption. This approach plays to one of Nas' biggest strengths. Whether eulogizing Rakim or bridging the gap between the civil rights and crack cocaine eras, he's always excelled at period pieces. It's intriguing to hear him finally document his own legacy at length. On 'Loco-Motive,' Nas claims he "started out broke, got rich, lost paper, then made it back," before vividly detailing his brief foray into petty crime. The following track, 'Queens Story', finds him narrowly escaping death and prison despite rubbing elbows with his hometown's most nefarious street legends. Even the album's darkest pockets are reinforced with an underlying element of optimism. He's just grateful to still be here to tell his story and toast to the forgotten. Meanwhile, 'You Wouldn't Understand' is a world removed from the perils of the concrete jungle, where Nas can express empathy for his less fortunate comrades while yachting off the coast of Cannes. The album certainly glances backward, but each song manages to capture a different moment in time and is told from a unique perspective.

The album's reflective tone sets the stage for Nas to delve into his bitter 2010 divorce from pop singer Kelis Rodgers. The emotional distress and public ridicule suffered in the aftermath of their annulment fueled some of the greatest songs he's ever written. 'World Is An Addiction' hints toward his own vices of infidelity. 'Stay' analyzes the confusing duality between vehement love and piercing hatred. 'Bye Baby' musters equal parts vitriol and adulation for his estranged spouse. 'Cherry Wine' entertains the idea of eventually rebounding from heartbreak. Life Is Good is an overwhelming listen. The ample spectrum of emotions nearly incites sensory overload, largely due to the cinematic production. This is by far the most animated music Nas has ever occupied over the course of an entire album. The veteran tandem of No I.D. and Salaam Remi deliver a truly dynamic soundtrack that accentuates Nas' poignant storytelling.

The encore after the curtain call consists of an impressive stretch of recordings that were left on the cutting room floor, where Nas' densely worded flow hearkens back to his mid-nineties incarnation. 'Roses' is a scathing address to his ex-wife, rolling out a laundry list of her flaws that render 'Bye Baby' tame in comparison. 'Trust' and 'Where's The Love' are saturated with an ominous introspection that he hasn't conveyed since 2006's 'Hold Down The Block'. The album's most frivolous entries, 'Nasty' and 'Black James Bond', prove that even without gravitas subject matter Nas can still rap cylinders around his forebears, contemporaries, and understudies.

Life Is Good isn't just a notable addition to Nas' discography. Its a triumphant milestone for the entire genre. This level of technical prowess has never been paired with a middle aged vantage point. The album won't dispel ageism in a culture obsessed with novelty, but it does prove that experience is the best teacher.

11 comments:

  1. This level of technical prowess has never been paired with a middle aged vantage point.
    ^^^
    Well wouldn't you say since Swag Rap era 2005-2010 ... the technical/lyrical chasm between the 20 something and 30 something rappers has grown exponentially?

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    "Life Is Good is an overwhelming listen. The ample spectrum of emotions nearly incites sensory overload, largely due to the cinematic production"
    ^^^
    I 100% agree.

    What would you say your favorite songs.

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  2. "Well wouldn't you say since Swag Rap era 2005-2010 ... the technical/lyrical chasm between the 20 something and 30 something rappers has grown exponentially?"

    Absolutely. I agree. That could be an entirely different post altogether.

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    "What would you say your favorite songs."

    I think "Stay" is one of the best songs Nas has ever done. He's written better verses on a technical level, but the sincerity on this one is off the charts. It gives me the same feeling I get listening to Prodigy's "Veteran Memorial". But my favorite song changes pretty much every time I listen to the album.

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  3. Co-sign "Stay" being the best cut,I haven't seen enough reviews mention that song

    That 3 song opening of "No Intro", "Locomotive" and "Queens Story" is unfuckwitable also

    And shout outs to the non fair weather fans who saw this shit coming

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  4. "That 3 song opening of "No Intro", "Locomotive" and "Queens Story" is unfuckwitable also."

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    No question. that's an amazing stretch of songs. I also love how "Accident Murderers" is sequenced right behind "Queens Story".

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  5. Really well written review of one of the year's best, if not THE best Hip-Hop albums.

    There are some low points tho & this review mentions none of them.

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  6. @Amp I know the conventional format is intro/highs/lows/conclusion, but sometimes I just enjoy an entire album. This is one of those times. I'd like to hear your gripes though.

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  7. Great review, for me I guess the weakest stretch was the middle stretch from Reach Out until Back When. Not that any of the songs in that stretch are bad either. Nas still raps his arse off and the beats are still good. It just felt oddly sequenced. The World Is An Addiction is incredible though, felt like it should be closer to the end.

    I only have minor gripes though, it's dense and unrelenting and a lot of reviews that I have read, aside from yours ofc, kind of glossed over the depth.

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  8. I thought the stretch of songs from No Introduction to Accident Murderers are sequenced beautifully. As well as the personal stretch of Stay, Cherry Wine, and Bye Baby. I imagine the same sequencing gripes you could have with LIG, could be made for Danny Brown's XXX, because the artists were only concerned with sequencing in select pockets.

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  9. Great review, hl. Keep it up! (n)

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