He's still a great rapper. But as the new Life Is Good shows, he should ditch the confessional tone and big ideas to instead focus on the rhyming that made Illmatic incredible.
Nas is hip-hop's great child prodigy. He became a minor legend in 1991 with his star turn on Main Source's classic "Live at the Barbeque," a track recorded when he was 17, and when Illmatic dropped in 1994 it was instantly and rightfully hailed as one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of the genre. Before he could legally buy a beer in a Queensbridge bodega, Nasir Jones had solidified his status as one of the greatest rappers New York City had ever produced.
He still is, but as with many prodigies his adulthood has been an uneven proposition, one that's found Nas spending almost two decades shadowboxing with the legacy of Illmatic. He's tried to go pop, gangster, political, philosophical, even tried his hand at a nominal sequel (2001's unfortunately titled Stillmatic). It's been a quixotic run of half-great but vaguely disappointing albums that usually manage to distinguish themselves by being vaguely disappointing in new and different ways. And it's still hard to listen to a new Nas album in a room full of people, because sooner or later someone will remark that they'd rather be listening to Illmatic, and suddenly it's 45 minutes later and "It Ain't Hard To Tell" is wafting out of the speakers and everyone's happier for it.
At points, the emphasis on personal honesty and lived specificity gets in the way of the rhymes, and rhymes are the entire reason we listen to Nas.
And now there's another new Nas album, Life Is Good, and what do you know, it's a new Nas album: pretty good, not great, a handful of moments of absolute brilliance and one or two moments of inexplicable stupidity. It's probably his most explicitly introspective record, although judging from the hype you'd think it was an album-long autopsy of his failed marriage to the singer Kelis, which, thank goodness, it's not. "A Queens Story" finds him back in the hard-boiled street storyteller mode he singlehandedly re-invented with Illmatic, while "Accident Murderers" is a solid collaboration with Rick Ross that finds Nas voicing an emphatic if scattered lament over street violence while Rick Ross talks about Rick Ross things (money, meet narcotics—you two enjoy yourselves). And "Summer on Smash" is a Swizz Beatz-produced banger that's infectious enough to potentially give Nas a massive summertime club hit, which would be an undoubtedly cool thing if only for nostalgia's sake.
Life Is Good also boasts a welcome, nuanced, and genuinely thoughtful attention to women and femininity. R&B songstresses sing hooks but in ways that are more layered than simple generic convention. Mary J. Blige appears on "Reach Out," a track that jacks the beat from the classic 1995 Bad Boy/Smif-n-Wessun remix of Blige's "I Love You" in a nice callback to rap history (though, again, you might find yourself just wanting to listen to "I Love You"). The late Amy Winehouse pops up on "Cherry Wine," one of the record's best tracks. Winehouse famously sent Nas a musical love letter of her own, and her posthumous turn on Life Is Good is moving, sad, and beautiful.
And then there's "Daughters," as essay on fatherhood that features a beat by No I.D. that's so good it sounds like someone brought J. Dilla back to life. Nas reflects on his relationship with his teenage daughter in a deeply personal piece of music whose earnestness is compelling, totally admirable, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious. "She planted a box of condoms on her dresser and then she Instagrammed it / at this point I realized I ain't the strictest parent"—I am not Dr. Spock, but that second line sounds correct. Or there's "plus she seen me switchin' women / pops was on some pimp shit." Not to be judgy, but "switchin' women" aside, it seems like having a daughter might make you consider purging the boast "on some pimp shit" from your repertoire.
And herein lies a problem: At points, the emphasis on personal honesty and lived specificity gets in the way of the rhymes, and rhymes are the entire reason we listen to Nas. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's last track, "Bye Baby," the album's lone full-bore assault on Kelis. It's just a pretty dreadful piece of music, a lazily produced diatribe that feels petulant at its best moments and completely unhinged at its worst. The next time anyone wants to hear a rich and famous person rant about getting his feelings hurt by another rich and famous person will be the first time.
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One of the weird things about Nas is that for a thoroughly brilliant and totally unique performer he's spent a lot of his career chasing trends, and it's hard not to wonder if Life Is Good really stems from his desire to make a personal record or from a studied awareness of people like Kanye West and Drake bringing rap to new (and dubious) frontiers of shoe-gazing. It feels a bit half-hearted, and Nas still seems at his most comfortable on tracks like "A Queens Story" and "Back When," where he's basically just rapping about Queensbridge.
He also tends to drift towards big ideas while neglecting to follow through on execution: Much of Life Is Good feels like music that started with big plans and then lost interest in itself. This is a recurring malady for Nas, and an odd one since his entire reputation rests on execution. Illmatic is great because it contains some of the best rhymes and pure performances in the history of the genre. It's a conceptually modest album that's musically flawless: If Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was rap's Sgt. Pepper then Illmatic might be its Revolver. But Nas is drawn to the big stuff. Hip Hop Is Dead (2006) promised to be some genre meta-critique but didn't live up to that. Nas (2008), his last full-length solo effort, was originally going to be titled with the n-word and deliver an album-length essay about its position in culture, which is an amazing idea except he didn't really do it. Luckily, Nas was still an outstanding album, maybe his best since Illmatic.
Life Is Good is a fine album that could stand to have a few more teeth in the right places. If you've come for 15 tracks' worth of Kelis burns, you'll be disappointed—and for the love of God, please stop listening to music. If you've come for anything other than that, you'll be less disappointed, if still not fully satisfied. It isn't as good as Nas was, or Nas himself can be. And it's certainly not Illmatic, which, weirdly and probably unfairly, for 18 years has been the surest way to know you're listening to a Nas album.