Until he dropped “Nasty” a few months ago, it had been a long time since anyone was talking about a new Nas song. Sure, a lot of people were talking about Nas, but that’s because every album the sleepy-eyed God MC of Queensbridge has dropped since 2002’s God’s Son has been practically engineered to get you to talk about it somehow. The cover of 2004’s Street’s Disciple portrayed him as Jesus at the Last Supper; the title of 2006’s Hip Hop is Dead pissed a lot of people off and gave rap’s talking heads fodder for years; in 2008 he released both The Nigger Tape and Untitled, which, while originally titled Nigger, still managed to retain its shock value with its cover’s painful depiction of Nas himself with the letter “N” lashed into his back. Confusingly, frustratingly, Nas -- arguably a top five all-time rapper -- was getting a lot of attention for everything besides his actual music.
So when “Nasty” came out last fall – an absolutely brutal torrent of nut-flexing, gut-punching swagadoccio over a breakbeat that knew best to stay out of the way – people rightfully got excited. Did Nas wake up? Towards the end of his last verse on that song, a reinvigorated Nas capped off a blistering salvo of rhymes that hydroplaned over the silence of a cut-out beat by exclaiming “excuse the vulgarity/I’m still not fully adjusted or used to the new fans hearing me spit rapidly.” It was as if he had broken out of the basement he was locked in for the last decade, knocked out the imposter who had been releasing albums as him, and wrote a song about it. Even the title of the album “Nasty” was supposed to be on, Life Is Good, demanded no attention, refusing to be a distraction from the music. Finally, it seemed, we were getting the Nas we knew and loved back. And we can be forgiven for getting our hopes up that the gimmicks were over.
When the details of Life Is Good were revealed, it turned out “Nasty” didn’t even make the final track list. And Nas opted to use a spare photo of himself for the album cover, a photo that would not have been terribly notable if he hadn’t been sitting, handsome in a white suit, with his ex-wife Kelis’ wedding dress draped across his lap. It seemed that Esco had opted for shock value over quality yet again.
Well, its not as bad as all that. In fact, thanks to a few truly excellent tracks, Life Is Good avoids the shock-value frivolity of Nas’ recent works, and almost – but only almost – shakes some of that anticipatory cynicism loose. At times, Life is Good is Nas’ most satisfying album since God’s Son, and at times it is just as flawed as its predecessors.
“Accident Murderers” features a no-holds-barred verse from Rick Ross, who is at once nimble and elephantine. “Stay” is modal and J Dilla-esque. On “Bye Baby,” Nas reflects on his divorce from Kelis over a beat that would’ve fit right in at the end of Illmatic or Midnight Marauders, and shows everyone a 40-year-old can, in fact, rap affectingly about problems 40-year-olds have. Two of the album’s best songs place Nas in the presence of recently passed notables; “Cherry Wine” features a pleasurably languid Amy Winehouse, and the Heavy D-produced suite “The Don” – Life Is Good’s clear highlight – raises a glass to the recently departed overweight lover with a vivid tour of New York rap’s classic soundscapes.
But despite Life Is Good’s very high highs, Nas never really regains the form he hinted at on “Nasty” for more than a song at a time, and more often than not seems restless, out of place, even uncomfortable in his own skin. Take “Loco-motive,” the album’s “NY State of Mind” simulacrum, for example. The Large Professor-produced track is classic Nas: hard-hitting, intelligent verses delivered deep in the pocket of a beat that sounds like its coming through the floor of the apartment above. In the outro, just to assert that there are no flies on him, Nas playfully but condescendingly dedicates the song to “my trapped in the 90’s niggas.” Fine. If Nas feels the need to declare for the thousandth time that he’s not making Illmatic again, so be it, he’s allowed. But only a few tracks later on “Back When,” Nas appears lost, admitting that “my man Dion [producer No I.D.] said ‘Nas over-think the songs he writing,’” over a sample from Screwball and MC Shan’s undeniably trapped-in-the-90s-feeling “You Love To Hear The Stories.”
No I.D. gets it. Nas’ tendency to over-think is exactly what has kept an asterisk firmly fastened to all his credentials, it's what has his fans groaning and cynics glumly nodding whenever he announces a new record, it's what made the music on Streets Disciple and Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled fade away with the empty controversy they created. While fleeting, that rumination is a telling, self-aware acknowledgement of the unique challenges Nas faces. He’s quick to pick a distracting gimmick rather than trusting his undeniable talents. If Life Is Good is anything, it’s a clear juxtaposition of what Nas can do when he trusts himself, and what he inevitably becomes when he insists on forcing the issue.