July 15, 2012
Nas - 'Life Is Good'
A grimy, back-to-basics return to form
8 / 10
Never judge an album by its cover. Despite wearing a sad-eyed expression and having ex-wife Kelis’ wedding dress draped over his knee, life is good for 38-year-old Nasir Jones right now, and any fears that the couple’s drawn-out, lawyer-delighting divorce would lead to a self-indulgent 10th record evaporate the moment you hear his voice on opener ‘No Introduction’. He’s on ferocious form, ready to “take over Goldman Sachs”, while at the same time acknowledging his status as a grand old man of rap: “Don’t applaud/I’m exhausted”.
Prior to the album’s release, rumours abounded that big-hitters like Kanye or young bucks from Odd Future would be recruited to revamp Nas. But that isn’t necessary. For the most part he sticks with tried-and-true allies Salaam Remi and No ID behind the desk, and they deliver an album as raw as anything since his 1994 classic ‘Illmatic’. This is further proof that Nas is a master storyteller, blessed with a keen eye for detail. On the Rick Ross-featuring ‘Accident Murderers’ he sketches a victim in a couple of lines: “Side of his mouth toothpick, one eyebrow raised”, while on ‘World’s An Addiction’ he narrates an American Psycho-style tale in which billionaires turn to bestiality porn. Best of all is the relentless ‘A Queens Story’, which follows our narrator as he moves from the streets to being the “only black man in a club with rich yuppies in”. By the time it’s built to its powerful a cappella finale you’ll be gasping for breath just from trying to keep up with his flow. There are a couple of club tunes thrown in (this is the Year of the Guetta after all), with bouncy Swizz Beatz collaboration ‘Summer On Smash’ being the most anthemic.
At this point, after proving he can rap and party as hard as anybody, Nas shifts down a gear. On ‘Stay’ he spits about his son Knight over a jazz trumpet, which recalls the music of his own father Olu Dara. But it’s penultimate track ‘Cherry Wine’ that will stop you in your tracks. It’s a ‘duet’ with Amy Winehouse, using vocals provided by their shared producer Remi, which feels like a response to her own Nas-inspired song ‘Me And Mr Jones’. Closer ‘Bye Baby’ is much less sentimental, as Nas speaks bluntly to Kelis: “The reason you don’t trust men is your daddy’s fault”. It’s definitely airing dirty laundry, but you can’t accuse him of not speaking his mind.
Musically, ‘Life Is Good’ feels familiar, a point he even references on ‘Loco-Motive’ when he raps: “This is for my trapped-in-the-’90s niggas”. And you could level the criticism that this album doesn’t exactly explore new ground sonically. But that would miss the point. Take solace in the fact that there’s no ill-advised bandwagon-jumping here. Just Nas doing exactly what he does best.
Kevin EG Perry
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