Nas looks back on ‘Life is Good’

Brandon Bailer, Special to The Roar

When most people hear the name Nas, they generally think one of three things: 1) Isn’t he that guy who fought with Jay-Z? 2) Oh, he’s a socially conscious MC or something. Didn’t he name one of his albums after the N-bomb? or 3) Didn’t he marry the “Milkshake” girl?

While all of the above statements are true, it is unfortunate that this is how someone with Nas’ skill has crystallized in the public consciousness. Nas is one of the best rappers ever – one of the “rapper’s rappers,” if you will, and one of the few active “classic” rappers who, along with Eminem and Jay-Z, remain relevant today. He turns 39 this year, and has been rapping for more than half his life, starting with a guest spot on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ” at 18 and releasing his magnum opus Illmatic three years later.

Since then, he’s released 10 albums, and is planning to release one with Mobb Deep (of 1995’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” fame; just know that Nas is probably going to be the album’s highlight), another with Common, and the long-awaited collaboration with DJ Premier (widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, hip-hop producers of all time; he produced “Ain’t No Other Man” six years back). His most recent album, Life is Good, was completed after his aforementioned breakup with wife Kelis. So does the album hold up? Here’s a track by track analysis.

1. “No Introduction” – The album begins with soap opera pianos, and segues into dramatic horns for a very cinematic feel. Listeners may not like the weird start of the first and second verses, but this is one of the better rap album intros.

2. “Loco-Motive’ (feat. Large Professor): A step up from the previous track, and it’s easily one of the best songs on the album – the best, if you don’t have the deluxe version. (Thwarting hopes for a Nas/Large Professor reunion, LP sticks to hook duties on this track).

3. “A Queens Story”: Sounds like a ’30s detective track, and there’s a reason for the classical feel – it samples Chopin’s “Etude No. 10.” Just like the “intro,” this song’s pretty good throughout (though breath control’s a problem in the first few verses), and it really picks up in the last verse.

4. “Accident Murderers”: Nas’ performance is great, but while Rick Ross’s verse is technically proficient, he throws the song off track by running in the opposite direction of the song’s message, so better to treat this as a Nas solo and move on.

5. “Daughters”: This song is better than I remembered, and it’s one of the rare Nas pop songs that doesn’t sacrifice his brain cells for radio airplay.

6. “Reach Out” (feat. Mary J. Blige): This samples “Ike’s Mood,” the same song sampled in “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” and while the song (especially the chorus) has a weird ’80s vibe, this is still pretty good. Well, I liked the song.

7. “World’s an Addiction” (feat. Anthony Hamilton): This is Nas as socially conscious MC, and as expected he rips his verses with ease, although the second verse is … i’m not telling you, listen to it for yourself.

8. “Summer on Smash” (feat. Swizz Beatz and Miguel): Reasons Why This Song Sucks: 1) It’s produced by Swizz Beatz. The man hasn’t made a quality production since 2004, and nothing that can be called great since 1999. Plus, he produced 2001’s “Braveheart Party,” which was so bad that Mary J. Blige ordered it removed from Stillmatic out of fear of tarnishing her career. 2) Since It Was Written, Nas has never been a good pop rapper. Dr. Dre and affiliates made the underground mainstream, Biggie straddled the line between underground and commercial, and Jay-Z basically gets a pass for going pop. Not Nas – once he figured out that he’d get more commercial acceptance for becoming P. Diddy’s slightly smarter clone than all the Illmatics in the world, whenever he sets out to create a pop song, a switch goes off in his brain that automatically takes off 50 IQ points, like what happens when Kanye West opens his mouth in public. Needless to say, this is the worst song on the album, by far.

9. “You Wouldn’t Understand” (feat. Victoria Monte) – A much better song than the previous one, and while it’s not the best fit for Nas, it’s still good, if not great; musically, it’s what “Big Pimpin’” should have sounded like. (Strange subject shift during the first verse, though).

10. “Back When” – Very ironic how Nas says he hates doing interviews, considering that the U.S. album release date was the same day as his Colbert interview. Oh, the song? Pretty good smooth-jazz/rap combo.

11. “The Don” – A great song, but whether you like the Heavy D/Salaam Remi dancehall beat is a matter of personal taste. I like the Don Dada remix better, if only for the drum variations.

12. “Stay” – See comments on “Back When.” Also, the subject shift between verses is confusing.

13. “Cherry Wine”: Amy Winehouse makes a posthumous appearance singing the hook, and why not; she and Nas dated  for a while, and after all, they share a producer. A pretty good romance song, but … Lilo and Stitch? Really?

14. “Bye Baby”: The censoring here is totally unnecessary and just obscures context, but by no means is it a deal-breaker, especially since it’s the only song on the basic album that addresses the Nas/Kelis split.

15. “Nasty”: The best song on either of the albums, easily. Putting this on the deluxe version and not the basic is probably a ruse to squeeze five or six extra dollars out of purchasers, but the extra money doled out is (as will be mentioned later) justifiable.

16. “The Black Bond”: Exactly what’d be expected from the song title – which is to say, classic bombast.

17. “Roses”: Interestingly, one of the few songs that actually addresses the Nas/Kelis breakup, but with a noticeably darker tone than “Bye Baby;” for the record, I prefer this song.

18. “Where’s the Love”: This song is a musical counterpart to “You Couldn’t Understand” and it’s about as good. That’s all I got.

19. “Trust”: A solid introspective effort, and the production’s better than expected, since boi-1da’s beeps don’t derail the seriousness of the song.

SUMMARY: I had high expectations coming into this album, and for the most part Life is Good holds up to them. You can tell that Nas spent a lot of time on the album, since his infamously poor beat selection (a running joke in rap circles and which he conceded is largely due to procrastination) is almost entirely absent from the album. The sequencing probably should have a definite progression from dramatic to lighthearted, rather than spreading the more radio-friendly songs throughout the album, but there are few lyrical misfires, and with the exception of “Summer on Smash,” there are no bad songs on here, and more than its share of great performances.

8.25 out of 10