He’s been called one of the greatest MCs of all time. His 1994 debut Illmatic is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded, and after his peer Notorious B.I.G. was shot in the mid-90s, Nas was involved in a long dispute with fellow rapper Jay-Z over the accession of the New York hip-hop throne. Now that the drama has died down and most of his old feuds have been settled, the Queensbridge native has concentrated on quietly producing quality hip-hop albums. His tenth studio album, Life is Good, which comes out July 17, is no exception.
The mood of the album is declared from the beginning, with a long instrumental introduction that sounds like the beginning of a film score, and continues on similar production lines throughout the album’s 18 tracks. Although the lyrical content of the album isn’t necessarily as cohesive as some of his previous works (see: 2008′s Untitled), the production certainly is.
Old-school hip-hop production aficionados will be happy to learn Nas has co-opted his Golden-Era peer Common’s producer No I.D. for almost a third of the tracks on Life is Good. The No I.D.-produced track and early single Daughters, about the difficulties of being a single father, is one of the standout tracks on the album. Only a rapper of Nas’ status could pull off a song about raising his “little princess” without losing any kind of street cred.
Nas’ own mainstay producer Salaam Remi handles the lion’s share of tracks, though, either fully producing or co-contributing on seven tracks. On Life is Good, he opts for a mixture between heavily orchestrated sounds such as the intro track (No Introduction) and World’s An Addiction and the stripped down instrumentation that let’s Nas’ complicated rhyme patterns and poetry take front and center. On tracks like A Queen’s Story, he uses the proven trick of fading the music to silence for a few a cappella-like rhyme bars to highlight Mr. Jones’ lyrical science. It’s a trick that doesn’t always produce great results, but Nas lives up to the challenge.
Rick Ross manages to exceed expectations with rhyme schemes more complex than he usually offers* on his featured verse in “Accident Murderers.” Maybe Nas inspired the Miami rapper to bring the competition level up.
The album could easily do without the Swizz Beatz-produced track, a song dealing with the important social issue of “Summer on Smash.” It’s almost as if Nas dumbs down his lyrical content and slows his flow to accommodate the Bronx producer/rapper’s notably modest ability.
The Amy Winehouse guest appearance on Cherry Wine is sure to keep the gossip-mill flowing. Winehouse’s rumoured feelings for Nas stemmed from her 2006 song Me and Mr. Jones, which was dedicated to the rapper.” Whether or not you care about the rumours, the two have a definite musical chemistry based in no small part on their shared love of nostalgia.
Other notable old-school appearances happen on The Don, a track partly produced by the late Heavy D, and a verse and chorus by Mary J. Blige on the song Reach Out. While the former comes off sounding more like a club-bounce friendly track and less like anything Heavy D would have actually produced, Reach Out has a wonderfully minimalist beat that highlights both Nas and Blige on a track that could easily be a lost cut from the ’90s.
The deluxe edition features excellent minimalist hip-hop anthem Nasty and The Black Bound, an eerie-sounding Salaam Remi beat coupled with Nas lyrics at their storytelling best.
Nas continually defies the rules of the rap game. In an age where most of his lyrical peers are delegated to infinite tours replaying their classic albums from the ’80s and early ’90s, Nas continues to put out socially and musically relevant music. Despite his low-key profile — compared to other hip-hop heavy weights like Jay-Z — Nas continues to quietly sell albums and defy industry trends in the rap game. While Life is Good isn’t necessarily a thematic masterpiece like Illmatic or even the more recent Untitled, it’s a great collection of lyrically superior tracks to add to the rapper’s impressive canon.