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July 23, 2012  | by: Latonya Darrisaw

Album art

It’s hard to believe one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists recorded his first classic album, Illmatic, at the age of 21. Queensbridge rapper Nas is 38-years-old now, but he hasn’t lost the rhyming skills or thought-provoking lyrics he’s always exhibited throughout the two decades of his career. Ten albums later, Nas’ Life is Good album may indeed be his new Illmatic.

He’s come close with It Was Written and even closer with Stillmatic, but Life is Good puts the emcee in his element of rhyming over perfectly orchestrated beats grounded in jazz, old-school hip-hop and a little funk. Lyrically, he’s never been better. From personal topics and growing up in the projects and hardcore streets of New York to politics, the rap veteran is in his prime, besting some of his rap peers that are 20 years his junior.

And per the formula, controversy and personal drama always seem to bring out the best in Nas. Remember that silly spat with another great rapper, Jay-Z, that brought out the brilliance of diss track, “Ether?” Well, the two have since squashed their beef. But Nas has endured some other difficult woes recently, including divorcing his ex-wife and mother of his son, Knight.

Married for two years to the eccentric R&B singer and style trendsetter Kelis, Nas’ pain and devastation of the divorce is draped across his knees on the cover of Life is Good in the only thing Kelis reportedly left behind after the split: her green wedding gown. Nas also went through some financial trouble with the IRS, and these issues and more are discussed on some of the best tracks on the album.

With only two other hip-hop guest appearances on the album and a few others from the best in R&B and soul, Nas does the grunt work albeit some great samples. Most of the beats are produced by the talented Salaam Remi who has worked with everyone from Nas and Fergie to the late Amy Winehouse (who is also posthumously featured on the album). Perfectly matched with Nas’ untimely and captivating flow, Life is Good is one of the most effortlessly produced and lyrically-enthralling albums ever.

Life is Good starts with the celebratory opening and appropriately titled “No Introduction.” Frankly, after 10 great albums, no introduction is needed. It is one of the highlights of the album.

Nas raps, “Really what’s in my mind is organizing a billion black motherf*****s. To take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs. And teach the world facts. And give Saudi they oil back.”

Produced by Just Blaze and set against a backdrop of drums and chords, this represents the overall theme of Life is Good and the juxtaposition of a hood-raised Nas and a civilized, informed and richer Nas. He even references a conversation with one of Brooklyn’s greatest rappers, the late Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. on the track.

And on the issue of remaining relevant in an industry full of young, hungry rappers, Nas puts the haters and naysayers in their place on “Stay.” He raps, “Some seek fame cause they need validation. Some say hating is confused admiration. Spotlight on me. I still look twenty.”

On the Large Professor-assisted “Loco-Motive,” Nas continues the tirade, rapping, “They asking how he disappear and reappear back on top. Saying Nas must have naked pictures of God or something. To keep winning is my way like Francis. As long as I’m breathing, I’ll take chances.”

On “A Queens Story,” Nas transports listeners back in time to his birthplace and growing up on the gritty streets of New York. Maybach Music founder and rapper Rick Ross is the other hip-hop artist featured on the album on “Accident Murderers.” Salaam Remi is at his best on the two tracks, and Nas ingrains classic hip-hop into fresh, contemporary sounds and pertinent topics of today.

While the divorce and Kelis are addressed on “Bye Baby,” it’s the other honest and soulful tracks that stand out. Mary J. Blige delivers on the piano-tinged “Reach Out” and so does Anthony Hamilton on “World’s an Addiction.” But perhaps the finest moment happens on “Cherry Wine,” featuring Amy Winehouse scatting and drifting in and out of jazz melodies like that of Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a tender moment of great chemistry between the two artists as Nas expresses his hopes of what his next true love will be like. The track fades out to Nas saying “life is good” repeatedly.

From expressing the trials and tribulations of raising a child and rapping an ode to fathers and daughters across the world on “Daughters” to the fun summer banger and anthem “Summer on Smash” produced by Swizz Beatz featuring R&B singer Miguel, Nas’ clever wordplay is still ever-present and genius.

Life is Good evolves track-by-track with the deluxe edition containing three bonus songs. Heavy-laden with weighty issues and topics mixed with an upbeat, cheery sound, the album is an example of what modern day hip-hop should sound like. Although some tracks slightly edge out others, Nas is still open, honest and truly “the don” of rap music. He gives listeners an up close and personal view of not only his life but also the world at large. It seems as if the tenth time is truly a charm for Nas.

After going through a divorce and experiencing financial setbacks, life shouldn’t be exactly good for Nas. And maybe it’s not on a personal level. But musically, life doesn’t appear to be just good for Nas. It’s very close to perfection.

Album Grade: A

Best Tracks: “Cherry Wine,” “No Introduction,” “Loco-Motive” and “Stay”

What are your favorite tracks from Life is Good?

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