The use of the green wedding dress his ex-wife Kelis once wore on the album cover is supposed to clue listeners in on what Nas was thinking about when he recorded Life Is Good, his tenth (tenth!) album and the final one on his Def Jam Records contract. Where the man will end up once the dust settles is a mystery I don't feel like solving; maybe I'll hire some goofy teenagers and their dog to sniff things out. I just hope he doesn't end up on the Maybach Music Group label. I don't know why I just wrote that; the idea just popped into my head, and now I fear for Nas's career.
Anyway, Life Is Good focuses on the failure of Nasir's marriage and his attempt to move forward with his life, which was apparently successful, since he doesn't really mention his marriage or divorce on the album itself, save for on one track that critics flocked to because the man revealed personal insight into his mindstate at the time. In that respect, all of the comparisons to Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear (most of which were perpetrated by Nas himself) don't make all that much sense; I actually think that Life Is Good is a valid effort to record a more mature version of what Nas was going for with It Was Written, recorded with his eyes firmly focused on his past, both personally and professionally. Nas has been quoted in interviews claiming that he's gone from "Life's A Bitch" to Life Is Good, a valiant attempt to describe why he wrote the album in a single tagline: maybe he should look into a side career in public relations, because that's quite the spin.
Life Is Good was blessed with almost universal acclaim when it finally hit actual store shelves. Critics praised the man's flow, which remains unchanged from when he was a teenager, and his selection of beats, primarily handled by Salaam Remi and No I.D., among a handful of others, which surprised most listeners by actually sounding decent. The days of dreaming and wishing for a Nas album handled exclusively by DJ Premier are long gone for me; if it happens, it happens, but I just don't care anymore, as Salaam Remi seems to have filled that void.
I don't have much more to say here, because I know you two have been clamoring for my thoughts on the actual songs ever since Life Is Good was first announced. So have at it.
1. NO INTRODUCTION
Clearly someone has been getting annoyed at my standard “(insert artist name here) eschews the typical rap album intro trope” line that I include in nearly every write-up where there is no intro because there's only so many ways you can relay that information to the reader, since Nas actually calls the first song on Life Is Good “No Introduction”, thereby cutting me off. And boy oh boy is it awful. Our host sounds okay enough, even though it's the exact same matter-of-fact Nas, the one whose boasts all tend to sound the same and, while good with twisting a tale, lacks the capacity to enjoy the fact that he doesn't ever have to work a real job since he is so well-known in our chosen genre, but the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League instrumental was boring, hardly the kind of thing any sane rapper (or one who doesn't have to worry about releasing product to pay off the IRS and to come up with both spousal and child support, anyway) would choose. Selecting beats has never been Nasir's forte, though. At least he didn't include a shitty hook; that probably would have caused the audience to walk away right from the start.
2. LOCO-MOTIVE (FEAT. LARGE PROFESSOR)
Before you use the last paragraph (or any of my Nas write-ups, I suppose) against me in some ill-advised attempt to prove that I actually hate all rap music, let me just say that I'm not immune to our host's charms when he is paired up with the right instrumental. No I.D., Nasir's new label boss, supplies our host with a banger that chugs down the rails (hence the song's title) with a power and passion that I haven't felt in a train-inspired beat since Eminem's work on his own “8 Mile”, and Nas runs with it, sounding all “N.Y. State Of Mind” while discussing his youth, his criminal activities, and, most empathetically, the pain in the roof of his mouth after inhaling a hot slice of pizza. Although I found it difficult to not think of J-Ro's line from Tha Alkaholiks classic “DAAAM!” when reading the song title, I still enjoyed this shit. A lot. (Then again, he does dedicate the song to those in the audience that prefer to hear his Illmatic self (or, as he so eloquently puts it, “for my '90s n----s”), so of course someone like myself, who regularly bathes in 1990s hip hop and mixes it into his coffee, would find it enjoyable.) My only question: why invite Extra P over to play if you're only going to have him perform on the “hook”? What was the point of that shit?
3. A QUEENS STORY
Whenever Salaam Remi steps behind the boards, I'm always not-so-secretly hoping for lightning to strike a third time, following God's Son's “Made You Look” and, to a lesser extent, Streets Disciple's “Nazareth Savage” (which isn't as good as “Made You Look” but remains highly underrated in the Esco canon). So, to appease me, Remi has supplied at least two beats that could continue the trend: the one he crafted for the bonus track “Nasty” (which I'll get to in a bit), and the backing for “A Queens Story” (which he borrowed from his own Chopin-sampled “Queens Story” instrumental from his Prague Nosis! project), which is hurried, well-executed, and, well, it knocks, and Nasir tackles it with breathless wordplay and multiple shout-outs to fallen soldiers and the like. I could have done without the final minute, where a practically acapella Nas gives a preamble to the very next track, but up until that point, I'm not ashamed to admit that I found this entertaining.
4. ACCIDENT MURDERERS (FEAT. RICK ROSS)
And now we seem to have reached the point where, yes y'all-in, Life Is Good is fallin'...off. Now, artists tend not to have any control over the events in the real world, and on occasion the release of their work to the general public coincides with horrific true-life circumstances that, had the artist of the label been advised by their in-house psychic, would cause them to think twice. Having avoided listening to “Accident Murderers” until today, post-Aurora, where we have a dickless piece of shit taking innocent lives in response to a fucking movie based on a fictional fucking character all in an effort to become infamous, I'll be shocked if Nas still includes this track on his concert set list, as I don't think anyone really wants to hear a song about innocent people being killed, whether accidentally or not, in the current climate. Well, that reason, and this one: the song sucks. Our host sounded okay (if uninspired, since the preamble provided on the previous track kind of ruined the surprise), but the No I.D. beat was trash (save for that overly familiar drum pattern), and Officer Richard Ross wasn't the best choice for a guest cameo (I realize that Nas and Ross tend to work together a lot these days, but nobody's ever given me a good reason for that shit): obviously Def Jam was looking more at potential album sales than artistic integrity, since there are literally dozens of other rappers who would have sounded better with the concept. Most egregiously to a grammar nerd like myself, the titular phrase makes no goddamn motherfucking sense: was it really too time-consuming to say “accidental” instead of just “accident”? (I realize that, as much as I try, all music criticism (or that of any media, really) is affected and impacted by numerous factors, including outside influences, but regardless of the tragic events that took place at that screening, I have a feeling I wouldn't have cared much for this song in the first place. I just wish I had heard it before that fateful day.)
Thankfully “Daughters” doesn't become the third track in a row on Life IsGood where Nas declares an opponent's gun to be “a virgin”, because that would be inappropriate as shit on here, considering that this song is about raising a daughter. I am familiar with this track, since Def Jam released it as a single, and I found No I.D.'s work on here enjoyable enough before, but within the framework of the album, it bangs. Nas sounds rejuvenated, kind of like how some people naturally perk up when they're talking about their kids: hopefully his planned remix with fellow daddy-daughter-dance-attendees Jay-Z and Eminem actually happens. Side note: on Illmatic's “N.Y. State Of Mind”, Nas expressed an addiction to “bitches with beepers”; on “Daughters” he drops a quick reference to Instagram. Kudos to God's Son for keeping up with the latest technology.
6. REACH OUT (FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE)
I have conflicting feelings about “Reach Out”. On one hand, the beat (credited to four different people, including Salaam Remi, Rodney "Darkchild” Jenkins (where has he been?), and Nas himself), simple and old-school, sounds almost insanely joyous: it's impossible to frown when it's playing. On the other hand, though, Nas sounds fucking robotic, spouting lyrics that hardly resonate with anyone after his personal IT guy instructs him to execute Program 7G.4229F: it is apparently that impossible for Nas to ever have fun behind the mic, since he always feels the need to share with the audience just how wide open his eyes are. On the third hand that I recently grew during my hiatus, Mary J. Blige's chorus, while decent, was wasted on the track, one which refuses to decide on just what the fuck it wants to be. The result is a terrible song that was fun to listen to. How the fuck does that happen?
7. WORLD'S AN ADDICTION (FEAT. ANTHONY HAMILTON)
Call off the search party, people! I found him! I found Anthony Hamilton!
8. SUMMER ON SMASH (FEAT. SWIZZ BEATZ & MIGUEL)
If this is what feeling confident and boasting an abundance of “swag” during the hottest months of the year (having your “Summer On Smash”, as it were) is supposed to sound like, then go ahead and put me in a medically-induced coma and throw me into a spider hole until fall comes, because I don't want anything to fucking do with it. Nasir comes across as so cocky and arrogant that nobody would ever want to actually be around him, and that attitude stretches to his guests, who appear to have not even shared a universe with our host when they recorded their parts. Guest crooner Miguel comes across as completely useless, even more so than producer-slash-rapper-slash-jackass Swizz Beatz, who acts like, well, himself, which, if you believe that to be a compliment, then you're just not paying attention. Fuck this shit.
9. YOU WOULDN'T UNDERSTAND (FEAT. VICTORIA MONET)
Another poppy instrumental (this time from Buckwild, of all people), another shitty and unnecessary chorus. Some of you two may believe Life Is Good to be the Illmatic sequel we all deserve, but right now to me, it's much closer to a follow-up to I Am...
10. BACK WHEN
Thanks to the MC Shan vocal sample, you two will be forgiven if you were foolish enough to think “Back When” would be all about old-school hip hop. Sure, a few legendary names pop up here and there throughout Nasir's verses, but the song is really about our host continuing to survive in our chosen genre, one which has shifted greatly since “Live At The Barbecue”. While that doesn't make the ineffective No I.D. beat sound any better, at least we know that Nas is awake: his lyrics on here aren't half bad. The song sprints past you so quickly that it'll never quite catch your eye, though.
11. THE DON
I like this song much more today than I did when it first leaked, when its all-out sonic assault harassed my earbones and caused me to run away in terror (read: change the station). Today, I feel the beat (credited to Salaam Remi, Da Internz, and the late Heavy D (R.I.P.)) is actually good: unorthodox, but a fast-moving vehicle for some Nas jewels that don't sound completely awful. Save for a few, anyway: the couplet at the end of the second verse, where our host brags about Heavy D's involvement, seems tacked-on and forced: the sound quality of the rest of the verse contrasts sharply to those last two bars. I have no real proof of this, but it seems like Nasir replaced whatever he originally recorded with those two lines just to capitalize on Heavy D's passing (in a “See? I worked with him too!” capacity). Hopefully I'm wrong, but I have a weird feeling that I'm not.
At first I hated No I.D.'s instrumental, as I felt that its faux-jazzy feel was undermined by a slow drum loop that had no clear destination. Then, with the aid of repetition, I ended up loving it. And now that the song is over and I'm writing about it, I'm struck at how I could have loved something that was so fucking dull. I suppose my overall opinion on the beat for “Stay” is one of indifference. Can't say the same about Nas's lyrics, though: as usual, he comes across as both technically proficient and detached, as though he was watching himself write these verses without any knowledge of what his mind was up to. Which helps explain how the second verse veered from domestic abuse to hating the haters so goddamn quickly.
13. CHERRY WINE (FEAT. AMY WINEHOUSE)
I'm starting to get the feeling that Nas keeps repeating the phrase “Life is good” throughout the project (as he does roughly halfway through this track) in the hope that saying it out loud enough times will force it to manifest itself into his reality (not unlike The Secret). The power of positive thinking, man. Anyway, Salaam Remi hooks up with two of his more popular collaborators, Nasir Jones and the late Amy Winehouse (R.I.P.) for “Cherry Wine”, with the guest sounding alright on the hook (an overly wordy one, that) while Nas tries to convince both the listener and his co-conspirator in his doomed relationship (whether that be one with Kelis, or Amy, or whoever, really) that, yes, he's doing great, and he just wants to chill with you while partaking in a regional soda (just kidding; that would be Cheerwine, although “Accident Murderers” has proven that Nas doesn't believe in using spellcheck, so...). Not bad (the beat has flourishes that reminded me briefly of Brand Nubian's “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down”), but not the epic collaboration everyone was hoping for.
14. BYE BABY
Although he never mentions Kelis by name, “Bye Baby” is Nasir looking in the rearview mirror at his marriage and subsequent bitter public divorce, which makes this one of the most personal songs in his entire catalog, one where his clarity seems heightened because he's forced to stay on topic, lest the song not make any damn sense. Our host doesn't pass all the blame to his ex, but he does manage some passive-aggressive lines directed her way. Is this entire album Nas's way of saying that Life Is Good because Kelis is no longer a part of it? Hard to say. But he's clearly moved forward, which is all one can do in a situation that sticky, I wish him the best of luck with that. No bullshit. The song wasn't terrible either, although the beat (credited to both Salaam Remi and Noah “40” Shebib, one of Drake's right-hand men) was a bit plain at times.
The deluxe version of Life Is Good comes with four additional tracks, because labels like to pull sneaky shit like that. Because you would only purchase the fourteen-track disc if you knew that there was an eighteen-track edition also available, right? What the fuck, Def Jam?
The first bonus track (and also the street single), with a Salaam Remi beat that makes it fairly obvious that “Nasty” is at least a spiritual cousin twice removed on its mother's side to “Made You Look”. This is the kind of hip hop that people who read this blog want to hear from the self-appointed Nasty Nas: unrelenting bars spit with furious venom over a hard-as-fuck instrumental. In that respect, the track does not disappoint, although it is a bit too short. Yes, somehow that was my only complaint. Weird.
16. THE BLACK BOND
Kind of awesome, actually, even though Nas loses the plot halfway through, thanks to Salaam Remi's instrumental, which reuses his own “Praguenosis” to excellent effect (I may have to track that project down now: apparently it's supposed to be Salaam working alongside an orchestra from Prague and, based on this and “A Queens Story”, it might be pretty goddamn good): the music can best be described as “cinematic” even though every goddamn critic is going to say the same thing, as though we all pull from the same bag of descriptors. It's quite befitting of Nasir's first verse, where he portrays an international playboy who carries his “fuck you” cash in duffle bage onto his private plane (so as to not let the IRS find it, I assume). The second and final verse abandons the concept entirely in favor of typical shit-talking, but even this manages to work, thanks to our host's memorable line, “You're what a thug about? I'm a fucking juggernaut”. A bit too dark (mood-wise) to include on an album entitled Life Is Good, in my opinion, but still one of the best songs Nas has released in fucking years.
The beat (credited to Al Shux, a British songwriter and producer who provided the beat for Jay-Z's “Empire State Of Mind”, and Dan Wilson, who is a man) is haunting and beautiful in all the right places, but Nasir has no fucking clue what to actually do with it, essentially using the space to complain indirectly about women, mostly. This song should have been a lot better. I'm actually kind of pissed that the excellent beat was wasted on shit such as this.
18. WHERE'S THE LOVE (FEAT. COCAINE 80S)
Because Def Jam's newest Executive VP No I.D. has his fingerprints all over this motherfucker, he couldn't let Life Is Good slip away for mastering without giving his loose collective, Cocaine 80s, some shine. Not that I blame him one bit: this beat by Dion can only really be described as “badass” (and a far cry from his work on Common's The Dreamer / The Believer, on which I only really liked maybe two songs). Nasir responds appropriately, with descriptive rants and braggadocio that don't reveal anything about him but sound goddamn impressive; I especially enjoyed the imagery at the very beginning, where he describes staring out of the window at the Wynn. Stay classy, Nas. A pretty good way to end things, all things considered.
The iTunes version of Life Is Good contains a fifth bonus track, the Boi-1da-produced “Trust”, but I've really only heard about a minute of it, so I can't give any official opinion. Unofficially, though, there was a reason I only listened to one minute of it. You know what I'm saying? You don't? You don't get I'm trying to tell you that I had to leave to go to work and had to cut it short? Wait, what did you think I meant?
THE LAST WORD: Here's the thing: Life Is Good is merely alright. Some of the songs bang, while others actually knock the entire goddamn genre down several pegs within popular culture; still, I can only imagine maybe one or two of these tracks still getting any play six months from now. Nas, typically, struggles with consistency on here, his infamously tin ear for beats having been replaced with a prosthetic that can actually differentiate music from noise, but still only functions properly about thirty percent of the time, leaving the listener with an annoying experience occasionally broken up with flashes of brilliance. Nobody ever questions Nas's ability behind the microphone, but honestly, maybe we should: the guy's verses all tend to sound alike, a problem he didn't have on Illmatic (granted, nobody knew who he was back then, so he could have written ten songs about his cat and we probably wouldn't have thought twice), and over certain instrumentals I have no qualms with that, but Nas raps the same way (and usually about the exact same things, save for the songs which are supposed to have a specific theme) over every goddamn beat he can get his hands on, and that grows tiresome. That said, if I really wasn't rooting for the dude, I wouldn't give a fuck about his back catalog (Untitled and Distant Relatives write-ups coming soon!), and I appreciate and respect his capacity as an artist and have nothing but admiration for the way he has somehow remained relevant in a musical genre that famously eats its young (and yet also plays only to them, guaranteeing that folks like Nasir Jones will never earn any new fans). Now keep in mind that the next sentence comes from a guy who hasn't really listened to Nas's work since Hip Hop Is Dead: Life Is Good is better than what I was expecting, and overall, I liked it more than most of his recent work. But when a guy keeps making the same mistakes, eventually you grow weary and look elsewhere for guidance. Take that how you will.