Here’s the damnedest thing about becoming a legend: you’ve either gotta die young, or live up to your status over and over again. It’s a problem that we’ve all watched plague Nas since he solidified his role in musical history at 21. But the MC returns with Life is Good, an album aimed at enjoying the fact of success rather than surpassing it with another super-human effort. Nas sounds older, shockingly normal, and surprisingly suburban–but still like Nas.
It makes sense when you think about it: even if he’s handling divorce, middle-age, and fatherhood, he’s still doing it as the man who came to terms with street life at the height of gangster rap, as the kid from Queens making his way through grit and crime. And that’s the thing about Nas–he’s always been smarter than the rest of us at the same time that he was dealing with the dirt we think beneath us. He lays it out clearly on “A Queens Story“:
Nigga getting money now but you know I’m still mental but not simple
Put your glass high if you made it out the stash spot
And here to tell your story and celebrate the glory
Drinks in the air for my niggas not here
Life is Good works because Nas is so honest. He discusses ex-wife Kelis in “No Introduction” and in the rumination on his divorce “Bye Baby.” He doesn’t shy away from the gossip column drama surrounding his daughter’s misuse of Twitter, instead explicitly asking whether or not he’s been a good father. Nas has stopped trying to renew his OG status, instead opening up about the post-hood life he’s found himself in.
And the curious thing that drives the album is that Nas simply doesn’t fit in. As he says on “A Queens Story,” he’s ‘the only black in the club with rich Yuppie kids.’ But “Reach Out” shows it’s more than that:
Can see myself in presidential campaign dinners
But I’m gassin’ blunts around a bunch of gang members
When you’re too hood to be in them Hollywood circles
And you’re too rich to be in that hood that birthed you
And you become better than legends you thought were the greatest
And out grow women you love and thought you could stay with
There’s not a social circle that Nas could belong to, not a culture that fits him. He was unlucky to be so talented at 21 and now he’s living in the fallout. He sounds like he has to try to be natural–creating occasional missteps like “Summer On Smash” where he sounds more mid-life crisis than legend. But the thing is, that’s the price of Illmatic. And we could either hate that he’s not the same kid he was in the mid-90s, or we can enjoy watching a brilliant artist come to terms with a different life.
Musically, Life is Good contains grimy club beats on single “The Don“, jazz sax, and moving piano lines–all interesting in their own right. But they all take a backstage to Nas’ bulldog flow. The discomfort in that upfront, honest delivery is what made Nas a legend, and it’s what makes Life is Good a really good Nas album–even if it’s not a masterpiece.