There's Nas. Hand on chin. Doleful. Gripping a half-empty wine glass. Right elbow on the only thing his ex-wife Kelis left behind—her wedding dress. White suit. Clean shoes. All dressed up with nowhere to go. Life is cruel.
That very public divorce inspired many of the themes on Nas' 10th LP, Life Is Good. Veteran producers No I.D. and Salaam Remi whip up a batch of raw beats tailor-made for his musings on fatherhood, relationships, financial stress, and a bevy of other personal issues.
"My man Dion says Nas overthinks the songs he's writing."
Dion has a point. The main knock on Nas has always been that he's allergic to the arresting rhythms inherent in all memorable beats. That's not an issue here. No I.D. and Salaam Remi make sure of it. They serve up those classic, sample-based beats Nas loves so much, but with a dash of that mysterious oomph that seems to have eluded him in the past. They help Nas craft his most cohesive album since Illmatic.
I don't want to overstate No I.D. and Salaam Remi's influence on this album. Life Is Good is still very much a Nas album, powered by the Nas experience. His lyrics drive the music, and they're rife with all the Nas essentials: vivid poetry, fresh metaphors, substance, and the occasional jaw dropper. The only major misstep is the Swizz Beatz and Miguel dud, "Summer on Smash."
"The ill reminisce and think about the fly days/Nothing like them 80s summer N.Y. days."
There's nostalgia here. Bits of the album hearken to the halcyon days of Nas' stellar debut, Illmatic. “Loco-Motive” sports vestiges of the 1993 album, Large Professor's voice and all, combining the choo choo train backdrop of "Genesis" with the dark din of "NY State of Mind." "Reach Out" takes us down memory lane for a slice of New Edition's "Once in a Lifetime Groove." The breakup note "Bye, Baby" is set to Guy's "Goodbye Love."
Nas digs up the past not to dwell on it, but to push forward. I picture him feeling around his tool box for vintage flows. When he finds one on "Back When," he uses it to salute his predecessors: 2Pac, Eric B & Rakim, MC Shan, Marley Marl, and others.
With all these inspirational forces looming, Life Is Good borders on heavy-duty stuff. Good thing Salaam Remi and No I.D. are versed in heavy-duty. They keep Nas from crashing under the weight of his own ambition, or rising too far above the music. They simply let his natural (or unnatural, depending on how you feel about a guy who doesn't rhyme on beat) flow direct the course. Nothing wrong with that.
"Half of your soul, half of your heart you leaving behind/It’s either that or die, I wanted peace of mind."
There's conflict here. The years in between Untitled and Life Is Good haven't been very kind to Nas. We watched his divorce unfold publicly with all the ugly twists of a Lifetime movie, just as Kelis was getting ready to give birth to their son. We also learned that he owes the IRS millions of dollars. And since that wasn't embarassing enough, last February his 17-year-old daughter instagrammed a box of condoms and nicknamed her first Benz "Cocaine." Yikes.
These issues present Nas with the perfect muse, and he makes magic with the hand he's dealt. He concedes his failures as a father on "Daughters," and uses “Bye, Baby" to reflect on the good times and bad times with Kelis. He doesn't wallow in "woe me" self-pity; he's simply content with learning from the experience and moving on.
The sprawling Amy Winehouse duet "Cherry Wine" sees Nas searching for the perfect mate. Nas' last word on the issue sums up the album's message:
"No matter what, life is good."
What's striking about these songs is that there's nothing in the form of therapeutic rage. Just cathartic release. Nas exemplifies such maturity on Life Is Good that I found myself wishing that all 30+ rappers would adopt him as a role model. Fierce. Focused. Honest. Inspired. Authentic.
Ultimately, Life Is Good is about acceptance and redemption. It's about losing your balance, getting back up, and pushing forward. It's about perspective.
That wine glass on the cover is half-full. The dress is a relic of bliss. The white suit signifies honesty and self-awareness. Nas got his good shoes on. Life is good.Top Tracks: