"This ain't the Truman Show. It's the human show."
One of the most poignant lines on Nas' tenth studio effort, Life
Is Good didn't make it into the standard retail version of the album. And
it's probably for the best, as anyone going into this, his first post-divorce
solo record, looking for an introspective study of (and by) a middle-aged man
celebrating his twentieth year in a young man's game, is in for major
Despite his oft-touted "top 5 all-time MC" status, Nas is not terribly easy to like. His discography is sorely missing a quality control officer. He's prone to making grandiloquent, pseudo-political gestures that mostly just expose his ignorance. But most of all, he exhibits an apparent insecurity-fueled dickishness that's especially puzzling for someone so successful and revered. More infuriating is the fact that, whether he's
humblebragging about Raekwon and Biggie each accusing the other of biting Nas' style or claiming that an unnamed "they" used to warn him of Jay-Z's envy, he seldom has the balls to claim any agency in the oversold tales of his own greatness.
It's this kind of passive-aggressive braggadocio that mars what was meant to be his most emotionally open moment on the album -- his highly anticipated post-mortem on his marriage to singer Kelis. He repeatedly references his decision to "walk away,"
despite near-unanimous reports that it was she who ended their marriage.
Still, it manages to be a gracious, classy rumination on a love lost. "Roses" manages no such class. It's a photo-negative view of "Bye Baby," with Nas condescendingly sympathizing with a lover's resentment of his wealth in the absence of her own -- a sentiment that dissolves by the time he calls her "a fucking liar" in the song's closing line. He doesn't ever call her by name, but it's clear he's referencing the mother of his infant son (or at least, that he knew everyone would assume so). It's moves like that (and the example that sets for the aforementioned baby Knight) that make the cloying "Daughters" feel about as panderingly hollow as its John Mayer-composed namesake.
Where Marvin Gaye's divorce opus Here My Dear was filled with a raw bitterness that made even its less musically successful moments worthwhile, Life Is Good is a consistently enjoyable album soured by unveilings of Nas' inner douche, and made all the more sleazy by the sheer face-saving calculatedness of those moments. And that's just it -- anyone looking to a popular hip-hop artist for emotional vulnerability and realistic representations of his success and masculinity, deserves the rude slap of disappointment. (And yes, regardless of how profoundly Illmatic changed the genre, Nas is firmly in the "popular hip-hop" space.)
So with that pipe dream mercifully killed, Life Is Good suddenly becomes Nas' most
satisfying album since 2002's God's Son. For all the talk of his failings in beat-selection, this release is surprisingly awash in choice tracks. The greatest of which (and possibly of his career) has to be the Super Cat-sampling, Heavy D and Salaam Remi-produced '90's stomper, "The Don." It's a phenomenally choreographed cacophony, with as much tension as Spike Lee's NYC on the hottest day of the year.
The more obvious club-banger candidate, the Miguel-assisted "Summer on Smash" is infectious despite being a rehash of producer Swizz Beatz's earlier work on the cuts "New York Shit" and "Everyday (Coolin')." And on the clumsily titled "Accident Murderers," Rick Ross does to Nas what the latter famously accused Eminem of doing to Jay-Z on "Renegade" (and Nas absolutely did to Jay on "Success"). "Cherry Wine" is fantastic if only because it features an Amy Winehouse vocal that doesn't require audiences and critics ignoring the giant, vodka-sodden elephant in the room. Even the aforementioned "Roses" is a brooding, expertly produced cut, more cinematic than the 007-themed throwaway "Black Bond."
And while it has its missteps (another day, another unremarkable Mary J. Blige feature) that suggest we may never see another Illmatic, this record makes it clear that 20 years into the game, Stillmatic Nas isn't dead yet.
Then again, neither was hip-hop.