Nas Delivered the ‘Grown Man Rap’ Blueprint With ‘Life Is Good’
Nas debuted in 1994 with the instant-classic Illmatic. But '94 would be a pivotal year in his life for another reason that had nothing to do with music. He would welcome a daughter, Destiny, on June 15, 1994, and it's clear that the stakes were high for him moving forward. He would strike commercial pay-dirt with the platinum-selling It Was Written, and would be one of the more visible hip-hop stars in the game for the next twenty years. That visibility meant that his personal life would be grist for the rumor mill, and no album in his discography is more affected by that reality than Nas' eleventh studio album. Life Is Good finds him trekking through highly-publicized pain, albeit with clarity and a broader perspective than he possessed two decades earlier.
Life Is Good was created during a period of turmoil for Nas. The hip-hop star had found love with R&B chanteuse Kelis after the two at an MTV party in 2002. They immediately became one of hip-hop's most high-profile celebrity couples; and they married in early 2005. The two became virtually inseparable--infamously appearing at the 2008 Grammy Awards clad in matching outfits with the word "N-----" emblazoned on the front and back. They were promoting the controversial upcoming album from Nas that would subsequently be released as Untitled later that year; but the stunt highlighted the pair's bond and loyalty to one another, baiting controversy but endearing them to fans. They would perform together, planned a reality show. Following Kelis' 2007 arrest in MIami after an altercation with undercover police officers, Nas supportively shrugged off media reports. "It's a lot of s--- out there circulating about her that she finds pretty funny," he told MTV News.
But the marriage fell apart, with Kelis filing for divorce in April 2009, months before giving birth to the couple's lone child, Knight, citing irreconcilable differences. During his 2001-2002 beef with JAY-Z, Nas saw his personal life making headlines after his rival bragged on a song called "Supa Ugly" about having sex with Carmen Bryan, Destiny's mother. Now, his divorce from his famous wife made them both tabloid fixtures, with media reports about alimony and cheating swirling as the couple dissolved their union. Their divorce was finalized May 2010, but the sting lingered.
That sting informs Life Is Good. Nas decided to put his ex-wife's green wedding dress on the album cover--it was left behind for Nas in the wake of their divorce. To add to his woes, the split coincided with Esco getting hit with a federal tax lien from the IRS for over $2.5 million--a figure that would balloon to over $6.4 million by 2011. And in the midst of divorce, finance problems, and a newborn son--Nas was trying to be a good father to a now-teenaged daughter.
Coming after the longest period between solo albums in his career, Life Is Good would address many of the high-profile events that had taken place in Nas' life, making it one of his more revealing and intimate releases.
Produced by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, "No Introduction," Life Is Good's opening salvo, is an epic first impression that finds Nas acknowledging the elephants in the room. From his failed marriage and infidelity ("The tales you hear is the truth on me, who wasn't the most faithful husband") to being regarded as a heartthrob in spite of his status as an elder statesman ("Brazilian women on Xannies they pulling off panties/I'm pushing forty, she only twenty-one/Don't applaud me, I'm exhausted G") in a genre predicated on killing off the old and bringing in the new, he holds no punches, giving an early indicator of the pressing topics that the Nasty one broaches on this collection.
Longevity can often coincide with lackadaisical releases on the part of some of musics biggest names, and rap is without immunity in that regard, as a myriad of legends have been accused of taking their foot off of the pedal ever so slightly as they enter the back-end of their careers. Nas' creative direction and his artistic risks can be questioned at times, but his fervor and intensity remains palpable, as it is on "Loco-Motive," a brooding No I.D.-produced backdrop from Life Is Good, on which God's Son trudges over the track with the force of a express train on the subway. "They asking how he disappear and reappear back on top/Saying Nas must have naked pictures of God or something," Nas muses, alluding to his ability to astound the rap world with his wizardry under the weight of seemingly insurmountable expectations. Reconnecting with longtime collaborator Salaam Remi on "Queens Story," Nas gives a detailed description of his sprawling borough, namedropping lesser known Q.U. neighborhoods Kew Gardens, Astoria, and Ravenswood and paying homage to infamous street legends like Black Just and E Money Bags over boisterous percussion and strings.
Having professed his love for his firstborn in songs dating back to his earliest days as a rap star, Nas has acknowledged the impact Destiny had on his perspective and life and career motivations. Nas often spoke candidly about Destiny and how parenthood inspires his lyrics.
These feelings would again be conveyed on "Daughters," which addresses Destiny's spurts of adolescent rebellion and his own shortcomings as a father. Produced by No I.D., the song finds Nas giving an impassioned performance, rapping about discovering a prison letter from a boyfriend of Destiny's and her posting a photo of a box of condoms on Instagram--asking himself "how could I not protect her from this awful phase?" before later questioning his parenting methods. Concluding that "I'm too loose, I'm too cool with her/Should've drove more time to school with her/I thought I dropped enough jewels on her," Nas crafts a song that resonates with many fathers inside and outside of the hip-hop community.
Life Is Good finds Nas doling out revelations about his personal life, but also includes a number of upbeat selections, notably the Swizz Beatz assisted "Summer On Smash," and the epic street anthem "The Don," the latter of which has aged into one of NYC's more underrated summer odes of this decade. A sucker for nostalgia, Nas also harkens back to his coming of age during the late '80s and early '90s in lyrics and sonic scope throughout Life Is Good, with "Reach Out," which features a guest appearance from Mary J. Blige, bringing to mind an old school block party with scratches courtesy of legendary Queensbridge native DJ Hot Day, and its sampling of "Ike's Mood I" by Isaac Hayes. "You Wouldn't Understand," is another cut from Life Is Good drenched in the vibes of yesteryear, with Nas delivering imagery of the hustler chic lifestyle that crack-era NYC was notorious for, with a performance by vocalist Victoria Monet complimenting the slick, albeit vintage, soundscape.
All but a Swiss Army Knife in terms of his skillset as an emcee, Nas' strongest compositions are when he introspectively dissects the day-to-day life and culture in Ghetto, U.S.A. "Stay," a solemn piano and horn driven number from Life Is Good, serves as Life Is Good's finest moment, and a selection of the variety which separates Nas from his contemporaries. Produced by No I.D., "Stay" contains some of the rapper's more poignant lines post-Stillmatic, as he expounds on the crab-in-the-bucket mentality among black men, rhyming "I want you dead under six feet of soil/At the same time, want you here to witness me while you in misery/We hate each other but it's love, what a thug mystery," an observation that is analytical of the ways of the places he holds most dear. In spite of the excellence that is displayed on "Stay," Life Is Good will always be remembered for dealing in matters of the heart, a theme that may not dominate the album, but is the crux of its narrative nonetheless. Amy Winehouse's jazzy, posthumous vocals haunts "Cherry Wine," a Grammy-nominated single from Life Is Good that doubles as one of the more vulnerable moments of the album, as he laments his failure in finding a romantic companion for the longterm, and makes for one of the richer duets involving a rap artist in recent memory.
Nas airs out the laundry of his marriage to Kelis and their divorce on the album's close-out track, although the load is relatively light. Produced by Salaam Remi & Noah “40” Shebib, "Bye Baby" features a sample of Guy's lovelorn classic "Goodbye Love," and a not-so-subtle interpolation of Kelis' own breakout 1999 hit, "Caught Out There," and finds Nas bidding a farewell to his former ride-or-die. "Did counseling, couldn't force me to stay/Something happens when you say I do, we go astray," he admits, owning up to his own part in the deterioration of his marriage, before noting that he should've taken his ex's breakout hit as a warning, pegging her an "angry black woman" and appraising her actions as that "of a demon." However, instead of using the song as an opportunity to bash Kelis and be bitter, he also looks back on fonder times between the two, refusing to be jaded by love lost, instead moving forward with his head high and the mantra "life is good" becoming somewhat of a credo after having gone through heartache and hindsight.
In 2017, much has been said about the maturation of rap and the lyrical content from elder artists, most particularly JAY-Z, who recently released his thirteenth studio album, 4:44. That project addresses his own infidelity and marital woes, as well as being a father to his children and a family man. But it was Nas who set the template five years ago with Life Is Good, which endeared him to a younger generation while also reveling in a more mature perspective that spoke to a generation of hip-hop fans reaching 40. JAY-Z may have been able to craft his late career masterwork--and lament his faults--without having to pay as hefty a personal price as Nas, but Life Is Good may have had a big influence on JAY-Z's decision to work exclusively with No I.D. and make an album as intimate as 4:44. Comparisons aside, Life Is Good is among the finest works to emerge in rap this decade and although not their equal, is deserving of standing alongside earlier Nas classics like Illmatic, It Was Written, and Stillmatic as significant statements that speak to his ability to reach deep to deliver highly personal work at virtually any juncture in his career.
Watch Nas' Video For "Daughters":
Watch Nas' Video For "Cherry Wine" feat. Amy Winehouse:
Watch Nas' Video For "Bye Baby" feat. Aaron Hall: