Nas Settles Comfortably Into Middle Age

Nas -- Life is Good -- Def Jam -- 4 STARS

Nas’ rapping has always been characterized by a stark honesty. On his 1994 classic, “Illmatic,” Nas painted a grim picture of his childhood in Queens, where he grew up a witness to crime and poverty. On his latest album, “Life Is Good,” Nas retains his honesty but introduces new themes that reflect recent events in his private life, such as familial troubles. “Life Is Good” showcases a more mature Nas and combines his frankness with a newfound maturity.

On “Life is Good,” Nas aims for straightforward storytelling, not complex wordplay. However, this simplicity is a strength rather than a weakness. On “Accident Murderers,” he depicts children growing up in his hometown, transformed by poverty into murderers. He bemoans the innocent young lives tarnished by a dangerous lifestyle: “Violent adolescents, homicidal with weapons / Not a lot of knowledge inside of they minds.”

Nas uses this crisp storytelling to capture new themes. On “Bye Baby,” a smooth ballad about his recent divorce, Nas explores the magnitude of his love for his former wife: “I was your Johnny Depp, you was my Janis Joplin / Yet, the cuter version.” However, he comes to terms with the breakup, closing with the poignant lines, “Next go ’round I hope I pick the truest type / And watch me do it all again, it’s a beautiful life.”

On “Daughters,” Nas laments his failure as a parent, explicitly referencing an inappropriate picture his daughter posted on Twitter, and admitting, “At this point I realized I ain’t the strictest parent.” He closes the verse pledging to change for his daughter: “They say the coolest playas and foulest heart breakers in the world / God gets us back, he makes us have precious little girls.” Nas is far from the gun-wielding gangster he portrayed himself as on “N.Y. State of Mind,” yet he is the same vivid wordsmith.

Not every song on the album is remarkable. “Summer On Smash,” for example, is produced by Swizz Beatz and sounds like Nas rapping over a Cobra Starship B-side. With the repetition of vapid lyrics such as “My neck got a whole lot of glass” and “Look at baby girl, showing that ass,” this track feels out of place on an otherwise emotionally charged album.

However, the Swizz Beatz misstep is overshadowed by the rest of the album’s imaginative production, led by longtime Nas collaborators No ID and Salaam Remi. “A Queens Story” showcases one of the most impressive instrumental tracks of the album. The syncopated orchestral hits complement Nas’s voice incredibly well, and the pentatonic mode and jazzy instrumentation recall a ’60s orchestral musical. In fact, from the unforgettable electric organ of “Accidental Murderers” to the complex synthesizer pad chords of “Bye Baby,” the beats on “Life Is Good” are consistently fresh and complex and make up for Nas’s occasional lapses in lyricism.

Although more mature and refined than his earlier releases, “Life Is Good” doesn’t escape “Illmatic’s” influence, something that has haunted Nas’s work for the past two decades. “Loco-Motive” opens with the sound of a train running over tracks, the same sound that opened his debut album. While this brief tribute reminds the listener of Nas’ earlier work and shows how far he has come, the repeated allusions to his classic come off as a little contrived and unimaginative. On “Accidental Murderers,” Nas plays the same character that he played on “Illmatic’s” “Life’s A Bitch,” and Rick Ross plays the same role that AZ did on the original, glorifying the “hood” lifestyle that Nas criticizes afterward.

But through poignantly honest stories such as “Bye Baby,” Nas doesn’t just reconnect with himself on his latest album—he redefines himself. No longer telling the same coming-of-age story that he has been expounding since 1994, Nas eloquently explores his shortcomings as a father and the pains of divorce, showing his still-sharp lyricism and impressive range.

—Staff writer Brian Kim can be reached at sehokim@college.harvard.edu.

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