The last line of Nas’ Illmatic still rings true 18 years later. The Queensbridge lyricist never fell. He never ceased to be celebrated as one of the most revered wordsmiths in the game, but—though he’s continued to cement his legendary status with solid efforts album after album—he hasn’t come close to matching his best works in quite some time. The tide, though, has changed with Nas’ 10th LP, Life Is Good.
As it’s historically been the case, Nas is at his best when facing adversity. His last two superior releases—2001’s Stillmatic and 2002’s God’s Son—were inspired by his heated rivalry with Jay-Z and the death of his mother, respectively.
This time around, a divorce with R&B singer Kelis and reports of outstanding tax liens are at the center of his topical palette, which still ranges from fly shit to revolutionary ideals, as evidenced on the opening number, “No Introduction.” “Hood forever, I just act like I’m civilized/Really what’s in my mind is organizing a billion Black muthafuckas/To take over JP and Morgan Goldman and Sachs/And teach the world facts and give Saudi they oil back,” he rhymes. He comes closest to addressing his alleged financial troubles on the No I.D.-produced, “Loco-Motive.” “I started out broke, got rich, lost paper then made it back/Like Trump bein’ up down up, play with cash,” he spits.
Creatively, Nas continues to reinvent the wheel. He takes reckless shooters to task on “Accident Murderers” featuring Rick Ross—the LP’s only rap guest appearance—and retraces his fatherly missteps on “Daughters.” On the Amy Winehouse-assisted, “Cherry Wine”—a song that sounds like a lost cut from the British singer’s Frank sessions—Nas fantasizes about his dream girl, before coming to terms with his failed marriage on “Bye Baby.” Over Salaam Remi’s sampling of Guy’s “Goodbye Love,” Nas finds closure with a heartfelt letter to Kelis. “Wanted you as my shorty since before I saw you screamin’, ‘Hate you so much right now’/Should’ve saw the man in angry Black women/Actions of a demon—I’m leaving,” he offers.
Nas’s beat selection has long been called into question, but not this time. Salaam Remi and No I.D. split the bulk of the production for a cohesive sound bed filled with soul and jazz overtones. Though the Swizz Beatz-produced, “Summer on Smash” has potential to garner radio play, it feels out of place and is the disc’s only substandard moment.
Still, Life Is Good is arguably Nas’ best LP since Stillmatic. In a climate where substance is scarce, the album is necessary. It’s potent from the excellent cover art to Nas’s sharp bars. It’s balanced. The Queens MC is open, but not emo. Hard, but also thought-provoking.
On “Reach Out,” Nas rhymes, “And you become better than legends you thought were the greatest.” Again, the Nasty MC’s words ring true. At this juncture—21 years and 10 solo albums in—no other MC has ever rhymed at such a high level this deep into their career. Not Rakim. Not Kool G Rap. Not Slick Rick. Not Big Daddy Kane. Not LL Cool J. No One. —Carl Chery (@cchery)