Sociologists are hellbent on propelling the claim that the current Facebook generation is dumber than any other generation that ever preceded it. I emphatically disagree. In an age where one must constantly reconcile with themselves which ex Taylor Swift is singing about, or figure out what the hell Future is saying at any given time, it takes a sharp mind to survive in these times. Even the NFL, which is often erroneously thought to be a mindless game for beer-bellied couch potatoes is chock-full of equally distressing intellectual dilemmas like: What kicker should I start this week for my fantasy team, and better yet, why does the NFL have kickers anyway? How did the Cardinals beat the Patriots? Did Peyton Manning really just throw three interceptions in the first quarter? Who are the first two Robert Griffins, and do they also eat Subway and run the 40 in 2.6 seconds? And most importantly, where the fuck was I when a second-coming of the crack epidemic hit the country, and tragically caused Mr. And Mrs. Rodgers to name their son Jacquizz?
The world is perplexing at times…
(But really though, Jacquizz? The only time it is acceptable to name your son Jacquizz is if while sitting at home, waiting for your Toaster Stroodle to heat up, Jesus visited you and told you it was destined that your child would grow up to become a star-studded running back for the Atlanta Falcons and make tons of money, if only you name him Jacquizz. Could you imagine a Jacquizz working as an insurance rep?)
Sorry, just having fun, I haven’t even begun to black…
Nas, the legendary rapper from Queens, has never strayed too far from music that penetrated the intellectual capacities of his listeners. Ever since his early 90s inception (no Leo, which means no falling asleep in the middle of this article like you did during the movie) as one of the most gifted descendants of Rakim, Nas has supplied the world with nearly 20 years of poignant portraits of street violence, drug dealers, and. His ability to remain in the public eye despite never achieving steady mainstream success is a true anomaly, the like of which will never be witnessed again. Nas’ recent string of releases have been far from perfect to say the least. Bear in mind that the same man who composed Illmatic, It Was Written, and God’s Son must be judged on a higher scale than say, Mindless Behavior. In his review of Life Is Good, Pitchfork staff writer Jayson Greene proposed an interesting question: what would happen if Nas just made an album? No controversial album titles, no ill-fitting collaboration albums, no awful songs with Kelis, and most importantly, no attempts at penning the next Illmatic.
Unburdened by these musical distractions, Nas was able to create one of the strongest efforts of his entire career, no easy task indeed. This is not to say that the penning of Life Is Good was free of personal conflict. Far from it in fact. Just a few months shy of the birth of their son, Nas and his wife, pop singer Kelis, separated in a costly and public divorce. And, speaking of costly, there was the matter of that six million dollar tax bill that the rapper owed the IRS. According to Nas, “[The] tax problems really caught me off guard. I was screwed over, and at the same time I had a very public divorce, with a young son I wasn’t able to see.”
Inthe same interview, Nas said that his inspiration for Life Is Good came from a man who had more than a few personal problems during his lifetime: Marvin Gaye. During the late 70s, after his divorce from Anna Gordy, a financially struggling Gaye decided to pay half of his next album’s royalties to his ex-wife to pay for alimony and child support. Despite initially intending to put out a shitty record, Gaye ended up recording, Here My Dear, a deeply personal and emotionally album, all about his failed relationship with Anna.
The emotions stemming from his divorce, bled into Nas’ latest effort, although not premeditated: “When I started working on the record, I tried to avoid it. The timing was just calling for me to not avoid all the shit that was going on out there. It was like a 10,000-ton gorilla in the room watching me. This is the way I got it off of my chest. This album talks about life, love and money. It talks about the fact that marriage is expensive. Life Is Good represents the most beautiful, dramatic and heavy moments in my life.”
The 20-year old who first stormed the scene with his sharp rhymes is long-gone, but his lyrical genius is still intact. It’s a good thing that aging musicians are not as susceptible to garbage-dom as aging athletes are, because Nas would have Patrick Ewing-ed out of the game a long time ago. Although Nas has never been short on rhymes that provoke and titillate the imagination, one of the most common knocks against him (other than briefly working for Jay-Z of course) is his beat selection, criticisms that the rapper has always seemed immune to in the past. Instead of enlisting the help of billion-dollar beat-smiths like Kanye and Just Blaze, Nas reached out to long-time collaborators like Salaam Remi to handle the bulk of the production credits. However, there are surprising faces sprinkled throughout the record.
Nostalgia seems to taint the minds of many Nas fans, who struggle to fully gravitate towards the emcee’s later material when weighing it against his early undisputed masterpieces. Nas has spent the entirety of his post-Illmatic career publicly resenting the notion that his status in Hip-Hop remains wholly embedded in the brilliance of his debut record. Throughout Life Is Good, however, Nas seems to pay homage to his early beginnings. The beats are the clearest indicator, most evident in the second track, “Locomotive,” produced by Large Professor. An early member of the early 90s group Main Source, Large Professor introduced to the world to Nasir Jones way back in 1992 when he featured him on his song, “Live At The BBQ,” and was part of the producer dream-team that provided the beats for Illmatic.
As Nas albums always are, the subject matter is as diverse and varied as Kim Kardashian’s romantic interests. “World’s An Addiction,” featuring Anthony Hamilton, is a conclusive view of the problems faces the people of the 21st century. Nas wonders aloud about the destructive forces (crime, drugs) that dominate and control lives, and the reasons why society is so dependent on them for emotional sustenance. On “Accident Murderers,” Rick Ross continues to amaze with his ability to outshine more talented rappers on their own songs, yet litter his own singles with lazy and repetitive rhyme schemes. The two rap heavyweights (ha) differentiate between the studio-pseudo-gangstas, and the ones that are really ‘bout that life, so to speak. “Cherry Wine,” produced by Salaam Remi and featuring the late, great, Amy Winehouse, is another standout. Winehouse truly had a gift utilizing space in music, and on “Cherry Wine,” she makes the song her own while Nas fantasies about his nameless romantic equal. The list of tragic aspects about the untimely death of Winehouse is endless, but it’s a shame that the world will never get a chance to listen to these two collaborate again, as they seem to have a musical symbiotic relationship that is impressive to say the least. May she rest in peace.
“Summer On Smash,” has impressive guest list attached (Swizz Beats, Miguel) but ultimately fails. I think the last time I heard a Nas song on Top 40 radio, I was still learning my multiplication tables, but Nas seems to add an obligatory, yet shitty “club-hit” attempt with each of his releases. The tracks where the rapper is most in his element, like “The Don,” are utterly genius. Shortly before his death, Heavy D collaborated on the track with Salaam Remi and Nas to produce a song that could easily be included with any of his previous classics. Nas concludes the album with “Bye Baby,” a detailed musical dedication to his former wife. I guess it would have been easy for Nas to provide his own Lil Wayne-esque freestyle to “I Hate You So Much Right Now,” but alas, Nas aims for the high road. What we are left with is not a nasty indictment of Nasty Nas’ former lover, but a respectful yet candid view of their relationship in retrospective lenses.
Nas remains my favorite rapper to this day not just for his gift for lyricism, but his willingness to boldly explore new musical terrains with each one of his releases. “Life Is Good,” which many critics and fans are calling his best album since Illmatic, is a representation of the current emcee’s middle age life. Nas’ position in the hip-hop pantheon cannot be disputed, and in actuality, Nas could probably do nothing now to propel neither damage his status as a lyrical mastermind and hip-hop legend. Still, his latest effort is much welcome, especially with great hip hop albums being a rare occurrence nowadays. Life is good. No matter what. Life is good.