Nas - Life is Good
Nas usually has something grandiose to say. Even before listening to his works, his album titles engender a sense of apocalyptic beginnings. From the fatalistic It Was Written to the theological God's Son, it feels like an occasion to prepare for.
In June there was a televised debate called 'Hip-Hop on trial'. The motion was 'hip-hop doesn't enhance society, it degrades it', sighting sexism, racism and promotion of gang violence. Flashback 6 years ago: unlike this formal debate there were no suited professors or youth workers. Instead the fight against hip-hop was coming from an internal agent. Even before the release of the album, the ominous title Hip-Hop is Dead sent the media buzzing. People thought Nas was waging war against his own when he just wanted to reclaim hip-hop for his own, "I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop...we are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say."
6 years later, rising from the rubble of hip-hop's shattered lands, he returns with the reflective Life is Good, his 10th studio album and last for Def Jam. He hasn't lost his sense of purpose. Rather his purpose is as introverted and personal as the title reflects, for the best part at least.
"Really what's in my mind is organising a billion black motherfuckers to take over JP and Morgan/Goldman and Sachs/and teach the world facts/and give Saudi they oil back." 'No Introduction' marks the rapper/social critic we've come to know, love and criticise. 'Loco-motive' is an ode to the streets that birthed Nasty Nas, a palimpsest of Illmatic's 'N.Y State of Mind' in its dark, piano-laced production. It also shows the mental conflict that shrouds Life is Good, "I've been rich longer than I've been broke/I confess" he apologises. How does a person born into deprivation reconcile it with their later, richer life?
Nas is having an existential crisis. Like hip-hop's answer to Schrodinger's cat he wants to be in the street's social critic and a rich capitalist at the same time. Life is Good doesn't quite make this possible. He is an important rapper because he wants to both represent and change the streets of New York. On 'Accident Murderer's' alongside gruff Rick Ross vocals, he sets a scene of accidental homicide, not even the innocent are safe. For every hip-hop critic, there is a hip-hop visionary, who uses words to stimulate change. But 'Summer on Smash' is an attempt to make Nas a club friendly, champagne 'bottle popper'. Its great production fails to convince that he can be a saviour and a loose sexual cannon at the same time. It's a barefaced crossover attempt that tears the fabric of the album. Perhaps the most honest and refreshing line regarding his identity is in 'Reach Out' featuring the queen of hip-hop soul Mary J. Blige, "When you're too hood to be in them Hollywood circles/and you're too rich to be in the street that birthed you," he feels the need to compensate for both camps rather than reconcile them. Which leaves us to ask who is Nas and what does he represent?
It's natural therefore that the success of the album is in its personal discussions. In 'Daughters' we are privy to Nas, the paternalist's rallying cry to all fathers: protect your daughters, and as he'll personally tell you, keep them away from condoms and instagram (especially together). We are fly on the wall in 'Bye Baby', which documents the fallout of his marriage to Kelis. On 'Cherry Wine' we read his diary; it documents his hopes, dreams and pains. Only an artist like Amy Winehouse, who poured out her emotions so fully in song, could carry this song as emotively as Nas.
Life is Good explores Nas' mind as a former husband, a reformed father a New York guy with rich pretences. It's mostly a return to form. Rather than relying on album titles to create pomp and circumstance, he is laid bare. But this transformation isn't full circle. Though he sets himself the formidable challenge of reclaiming hip-hop for the hip-hoppers, Life is Good fails where Nas cannot reconcile this 'street saviour' image with his riches, but succeeds in the only place where image doesn't matter; his personal life.