Allow me to share my “Things To Do on Monday” list with you, dear Reader: 1) Write the review for “Life Is Good” â€“ the much anticipated album by Nas, his first solo effort in four years, in which time he’s travelled the world, gone through a messy public divorce, owed $6m in taxes, and has attacked the past year with the ferocity, hunger and energy of a teenager; and 2) Write a eulogy for my grandmother who passed away 7 hours ago.
One can’t help but feel that perhaps “Life Is Good” should have had a question mark placed on the end of that album title: the artwork says it all, with Nas looking pristine in the VIP section of a club, all alone, holding the only thing the Kelis left behind â€“ part of her green wedding dress. Really, Mr Jones? Life is good? Well, an hour in the company of QB’s finest demonstrates his willingness to back his proclamation up, as he proceeds to tell us: “I shouldn’t even be smiling, I should be angry and depressed, I’ve been rich longer than I’ve been broke, I confess.” It’s a revealing line (taken from “Loco-Motive”), given that it mixes optimism with self-awareness, a lack of self-awareness with contradiction, and an unusual amount of ego â€“ breaking the golden rule of writing, Nas uses “I” or “I’ve” five times in two lines. That’s not unusual over the course of LIG, and it certainly hints at a genuinely personal album, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen from the legend, aside from the criminally underrated “God’s Son” released a decade ago. Shrouded in mystery, he finally allows us a glimpse into his psyche, and as he says in the brilliantly titled “No Introduction” you should be prepared for a no holds barred fifteen rounds through the mind of a genius: he pretends to be civilized whilst secretly plotting a revolution; he reminisces on chilling in the Lex with Biggie; he wants us to love/hate/judge him; he sends this out to Kelisâ€¦ Nas uses stark reality to craft his art, and that is the mark of a true artist.
The feel of LIG is suitably epic, with moody, melodramatic instrumental scores giving a cinematic feel for the vast majority of the album. It draws you in, and the curse of poor beat-selection is almost made redundant, finally. A huge amount of credit must surely go to Salaam Remi and No I.D. Between them, they have a hand in eleven of the fourteen tracks on display (more of the bonus cuts later). Even tracks that you may be tempted to skip at times â€“ such as “A Queens Story” â€“ end up having incredible twists and variations (e.g. injections of chopping/Chopin) that suddenly make them essential once more. “Stay” is a wonder track that doesn’t even have percussion; New York girls are clearly mad at “The Don” but they could never hate on the bass-heavy beat; “Accident Murderers” harks back to Diddy’s excellent collabo with Nas back in ’06 (“Everything I Love”) minus the K.West horns. “Daughters” is a subtle slice of brilliance, and that’s just the beat by No I.D. Again and again, you’ll find tracks worthy of the seldom-used “Repeat 1” button. Perhaps it’s simpler to point out the numbers that aren’t undeniable bangers: “You Wouldn’t Understand” and “Summer On Smash” are questionable in terms of whether their ambitions are successful met. Yep, that’s pretty much it.
So, if the “Nas poor beats curse” is a non-issue, we are free to focus on the performance of the main man himself. Fortunately, he is on fire. The whole album. On every song. Hell, he barely even drops a verse throughout. It’s genuinely impressive stuff, as he combines brilliant lyrics and flows with well thought out concepts, not to mention cleverly written songs. He sees things other rappers just don’t, and he shares real life with us â€“ it helps us to relate to him. Hey, I don’t have kids but I feel everything he’s saying on “Daughters” as he makes me understand the attempt to be a strong parental figure. More ambitious efforts include “World’s An Addiction” (is that an Arcade Fire “In the Backseat” allusion?) which really shows of his story-telling ability, not mention that vivid imagination, an innate ability to place you into a foreign situation with just one clever couplet. Even if the sequencing is somewhat questionable (especially in the middle core), “Life Is Good” quickly turns out to be, quite easily, one of the most well written albums in his discography.
Although elements of the album may not stand out on the first couple of spins, and there is a distinct lack of traditional radio fodder, pretty much every song does the job it is supposed to. The opening and closing five tracks are particularly perfect. Looking at the final five: “Back When” shows why nobody can reminisce on the past like Nas; the way he matches the various flows on “The Don” thankfully supports that incredible sample; the somber brass of “Stay” belies the venomous lyrics; “Bye Baby” is a stunning insight into his take on the failed marriage, mixing highly personal memories with humorous stories of Kelis taking on twenty policemen in Miami. Last July, I wrote the following in an editorial about the sad demise of Amy Winehouse: “It would be strangely fitting ifâ€¦ we received a brand new Nas album where the last track featured that young girl from North London who so loved him, so doted on him, who literally serenaded him from both near and afar. She’d have liked that.” Almost exactly a year after her death, and we receive the glorious “Cherry Wine” (she named her guitar “Cherry”). It’s a fitting song, truly special, even if it is a particularly bittersweet triumph. It is also quite possibly the best ‘ladies number’ that Nas has ever delivered, though it is infinitely classier than that label.
Whilst “Life Is Good” is undoubtedly superb, there are a couple of issues. Firstly, the aforementioned middle-core sequencing issues: with the beginning and end being so good, so consistent in quality, one can’t help but question the following four: “Reach Out” featuring Mary J. Blige is a relatively safe album cut, utilising that famous sample once more (Foxy Brown used it back in ’96); after the bizarrely-situated “World’s An Addiction” we find Swizz Beatz in, again, somewhat safe form (this surely cannot be a future mega single); and “You Wouldn’t Understand” recalls the “Hip Hop Is Dead” era, and doesn’t necessarily fit into the overall musical feel. Secondly, the bonus cuts: “Nasty” not making the grade simply defies belief and it turns out to be, in my opinion, the only track on the Deluxe Version that genuinely warrants the extra dough (just purchase the normal edition of “Life Is Good” and “Nasty” on its own). Apart from these misgivings, it must be said that Nas has truly delivered.
Considering just a few short hours ago, I watched my grandmother take her very last breath as I held her hand, you might expect me to be sad, angry, depressed, bitter. But I’m not, not even slightly. I’m thankful for the 84 years she racked up; for the time I spent with her; for the way she went, serenely and surrounded by loved ones. My very existence is down to her (“if it wasn’t for this, there wouldn’t be no that”). And the thing is, Nas is right â€“ bad things happen all the time. And that is what makes this such a great album, one that is surely going to bound into the “Top 3 Nas Albums” debates. Relationships break up, friends and family pass away, you struggle with finances, children do stupid stuff, you eat something when it is still too hot and burn the roof of your mouth. That’s no excuse to just give up the fight. You win some, you lose some â€“ but you face it all honestly, and keep on going until tragedy turns to triumph. We all get incredibly selfish when someone dies and make it about ourselves, but it helps to crystallise exactly why the title of this album is so spot on. You see, death is inevitable, and it has a direct opposite in the form of birth. But there is no opposite of life. That’s what will always make it so good.