Nas: Life is Good

Def Jam/Courtesy

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Life is Good — Nas’s tenth album and the final under his Def Jam contract — is not solely a breakup album. Though Nas holds ex-wife Kelis’ green wedding dress across his knee on the cover, it’s not. I assure you.

When you’ve been in the game as long as Nas (roughly 20 years) and dropped what many consider the greatest hip-hop album of all time as your first effort, every song, every syllable thereafter receives an unparalleled level of scrutiny. This is because, more often than not, it’s damn near impossible to compete with the past. Nostalgia for hip-hop’s golden era, for “vintage Nas,” will never cease, but the “rap Jack Dempsey” knows this.

And so, continuing to weather the torrent of criticism from those in that mind frame, he uses this album to take us back while simultaneously ushering us into the future. Again, Life is Good is not solely a breakup album. It is a reflection of one man’s life and an exercise in introspection after a period of life-altering struggle, both public and private. It is love. It is scars and still open wounds. It is beautiful.

Spanning 14 tracks, the “graphic classic song composer” paints the New York he has come to know with his endless palette once more. Subway trains, rooftops, glasses of Remy, cigars, murder, wealth, women, poverty, hip-hop, past and present — it’s all here.

Nas moves from rhyming about how receiving free lunch sparked his decision to hustle over a lush J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League suite on “No Introduction” to his time making money on the streets and “buggin” out to The Great Adventures of Slick Rick over the NoI.D.-produced “Loco-Motive.” It both contains and captures the sound of the subway that served as the first thing heard on 1994’s Illmatic. Think of it as Nas’s valediction for his  “trapped in the ‘90s niggas.”

“Accident Murderer,” which appropriates a line from Hussein Fatal’s verse on Tupac’s “Hit Em’ Up” for the hook, finds Nas rhyming alongside everyone’s favorite self-mythologizing rotund correctional regulator-turned-rap radio ruler a.k.a. Rick Ross. Here Nas provides what is sure to be counted among his greatest street narratives as he effortlessly glides over No I.D.’s organ-driven sonata, vividly illustrating a hit gone wrong. While Ross isn’t unbearable here, the plug for his album at the end of his verse feels forced. And though he picks up his flow to match Nas’ delivery, one gets the sense that he is much more comfortable in the deep pockets of Luger-esque compositions.

With “Daughters,” Nas airs out his daughter’s relationship and social networking missteps while addressing his faults as a parent. It’s honest and heartfelt. Some might decry Nas for resurrecting events his loved ones would surely like to forget, but he has never been one to remain quiet. He puts his right hand on the Bible and swears that he and his family aren’t perfect. Beautiful.

Despite the seriousness of many tracks, there are a few where Nas decides to live it up and figuratively let his hair down. He calls on Swizz Beatz for his club banger, “Summer on Smash.” It’s not the most intellectual or emotive affair, but after what this man’s been through, he deserves to party and “[smash] another belt for the record.” And on “You Wouldn’t Understand” he name-drops everything he associates with the lavish life of a real don. It’s the 2012 equivalent of “And I’m a Nike head, I wear chains that excite the feds” (“Halftime”). Respect it.

Both “Back When” and “The Don” serve as pure autobiography. “Back When” recounts Nas’s childhood in Queens and love of hip-hop, with the drums from legendary Queensbridge rapper MC Shan’s “The Bridge” complementing Nas’s old school references quite nicely. “The Don,” which contains the album’s hardest drums, is built around a loop from dancehall legend Super Cat (nicknamed Don Dada), superbly flipped Salaam Remi and the late Heavy D to say ‘Nas the Don.’ Here Nas displays his deservingly unabashed braggadocio both in and out of double-time while faintly tracing the arc of his career. Straight ‘army jacket swag.’

The record fittingly closes with “Bye Baby.” It is the breakup song, finding Nas at his most contemplative, his most reflective and his most emotional. In three verses, he chronicles the three stages of his relationship with Kelis: Seeing her music video and falling love, the marriage and the baby and finally, the divorce. His lines about the loss that comes with divorce are some of his best in recent years: “Not some but half. No serious, half / half of your soul, half of your heart you leaving behind.”

It appears that Nas, with all his wisdom, has found peace. He’s begun a new chapter in his life. Though, knowing that we’ll always “love to hear the story of how it all got started,” he gives us the newly-acquired scars along with those we’ve seen before. Whether Nas has another one in him remains to be seen. But for now the book is closed. The story is complete. Life is Good.