By Brandon Gross
Disclaimer: The review you are about to read was inspired while on a stationary bike from the confines of my well-appointed employers on-site fitness room, and subsequently penned from the comforts of rapidly gentrifying Venice, Calif.
I share this seemingly irrelevant note not simply for the purpose of brushing that White guilt off my shoulder, but also because it serves as a metaphor for Nas' Life Is Good.
In junior high I worked at Interscope Records. It was an internship, and by internship I mean that I learned how to barter our stock pile of CDs with the mail room managers at the Def Jams and Tommy Boys of the world. All day, trading stacks of CDs and selling the extras to the used record store for taco change.
One summer weekend I filled in for a friend as a "helper" at kid's birthday party in Malibu. I basically had to wear a bright yellow T-shirt and make sure that all the little kids were being supervised while their parents shmoozed. Sounds weird, I know, but rich people can afford to pay people to play with their kids so they can get drunk and not feel guilty. Anyway, having been interning at Interscope, I instantly recognized the one and only Jimmy Iovine, unmistakable with his black hair poking out the sides of his baseball cap. I forced myself to approach him and tell him that I'd been interning at his label. He responded excitedly, and seemed eager to hear what kids my age were listening to, always staying with his finger on the pulse. He asked what I thought of Snoop's new (and debut) record and I pointed out my favorite tracks, but then felt compelled to tell him what was really doing it for me.
"Nas... " To which he replied, "Who?" I swear to f**king God. And my Hebrew tuchas ain't supposed to even be typing G_d out, so you know I mean that sh*t!
A few years later Interscope pulled off one of the more intricate deals that allowed them to record and release Nas' supposed super group, The Firm. At the time, each of the group's four members were signed to different labels, none of which were Interscope. But when Jimmy wants it, he makes it happen. Though I put Jimmy on, I guess I also have to take tangential responsibility for that disaster of an album.
It's been almost 19 years since Nas' universally accepted masterpiece, Illmatic, was released, the album that solidified the fresh-faced chipped tooth then 19-year-old (do the math, yeah he's that grown) as a player in a league of his own. While the classic was not enough to anoint him the greatest, those flawless 10 tracks proved to showcase a superiority in lyrical prowess and storytelling ability that not even the most deft imitating MC can replicate to this day. While Wu-Tang's raw and dirty sound conjured the grime of Shaolin, and Dre's laid back G-Funk was potent enough to give even the most suburban kid a contact high, Nas rendered a vivid portrait of Queensbridge project living, simultaneously blending acute detail with strokes of poetic impressionism.
Much has happened in our world between since then. Hearts have been broken, towers have collapsed, and hip hop has morphed into a blurry cliche of itself; ("it's a culture, not a music." Psst whatever, it's not even good music anymore.) We'll spare the details of Nas' multi-album detour to Poor Decisionville, with a stopover in Confusionland and make like Eckhart Tolle and concentrate on the Now.
It's nearly impossible to listen to this record and not feel as if it was produced for me. I know, sounds creepy, like when my teenage baby-sitter, Krystalyn, took me to the beach at night so we could watch for the message Axl Rose told her in a dream he was sending her via a shooting star.
When I say that Nas made this album for "me" I'm speaking on behalf of "what happened to the good ol' days" 30-something hip hop fans who lament the tragic rise and fall of the Nas we all came to adore. Not that it was made exclusively for the Heeb nation, because it wasn't, but it's certainly a subset of those who feel that Nas let us down. He's not trying to be cryptic about it, evidenced by his track ending declaration "this is for my trapped in the '90s n*ggas" on the neck snapping "Loco-Motive," the second track on the record that features Large Professor. Nas sends a bold and clear signal at the top of the album by featuring Large Pro, an MC/Producer whose influence on hip hop's golden era and Nas' career more specifically, significantly trumps his relevance in popular music today. The combo is a win with the track's potent dark piano licks and NYC train car effects compliment Nas' vengeful cadence. They skillfully rebooted the 90's grimy New York sound, preserving the bleakness, while Nas takes the opportunity to add a visceral element to the world with Proust-like detail in lines like "At night, New York, eat a slice too hot/Use my tongue to tear the skin hangin' from the roof of my mouth." But it's in the third verse, when he addresses the listener do we get a truly personal insight into Nas' inner devils "I know you think my life is good cause my diamond piece/But my life been good since I started finding peace/I shouldn't even be smilin', I should be angry and depressed/I been rich longer than I been broke, I confess."
The track sets the rest of the record's tone. Nas ressurects his rapid fire flow, without phoning in a line, and manages to slip in just enough obscure references of the ilk that Jay-Z once lampooned, yet the RapGenius.com community will undoubtedly be salivating over.
On the No I.D. produced "Accidental Murderers", Nas pulls a Pat Riley, trading his former bench warming cronies of Oochie Wallie infamy for the power flow albeit predictable dependability of Ricky Ross. I love to hate Rick Ross, but his fat ass hairy-chested cliche sweat suit gangster nostalgia is a welcome counter-balance to Nas' preciseness. The 808's function as the throw back 90's head nod here, and it bangs.
For all the Kelis alimony whining that induces more eye rolling than sympathy, it's the paternal love letter "Daughters" that succeeds as the record's most personal. I was admittedly skeptical of the blatantly obvious track title, and while Nas risks falling prey to the gangstas-turned-fathers-feelings-too sub-genre, he manages to deliver with sincerity that would make Dr. Huxtable proud. You can almost relate to what it's like to be Nas' baby girl. (No homo-erotic. OK, maybe slightly.)
Much of this album, as has been with Nas' entire career, he's been in constant struggle with conflicting and colliding worlds. Here, he's a self-admitted player, and at the same time recognizes the poor example he's set for his kin. As sincere as the story is to coming of age as a parent, you needn't spawn a seed to feel him; "They say the coolest playas and foulest heart breakers in the world God gets us back, he makes us have precious little girls."
On "Reach Out" the Queen of Hip Hop herself, Mary J. Blige adds vintage to the track with a soulful hook, but it's Nas' fire breathing and every bit as relevant flow that put young'ns in their place. Again, though, the theme of being trapped between worlds and the demons that haunt him, continues to dominate "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" In many ways it's as if he's apologizing for his many artistic missteps, but has come finally come to terms with his struggle, even embracing it.
For all the bangers, and there are many, there are a couple of goofs. The crooning Anthony Hamilton featured "World's An Addiction" is just plain sappy. And the Swizz Beats pooped on attempt at a summer anthem, "Summer on Smash," is contrived and noisy. I know you die hard Swizzy fans out there are ready to pick a fight, but y'all need to recognize that Swizz is the M. Night Shyamalan of rap; a lot of hype, but a one trick donkey. Thankfully, much of the album's production is held down by stalwarts No I.D. and Salaam Remi, giving much of the journey a much welcomed cohesive and consistent sound.
There's redemption in the romance category with the Amy Winehouse graced "Cherry Wine." Winehouse oozes unfiltered soul and reminds us that her passing is a significant loss to not just neo-soul, but hip hop and beyond as well. This is straight summer night rose sippin' with your lover music.
This review wouldn't be complete without touching on "You Wouldn't Understand." Over a nostalgic yet so digi Buckwild beat that compliments the double time flow, Nas evokes the spirit of a timeless New York street hustler. The kind that comes to the party with his crew and leaves with Scarface-era Michelle Pheiffer in tow. This is Nas at his finest, confident braggadocio intended to inspire all of us caught in the hustle harder than the next dude machine, all the while flipping that native New York slang he co-authored. Rotten Apple street life was never so sexy.
Much of the record revolves around gangster imagery, ranging from humble Queensbridge beginnings to the many European references, (wines, cities, clothing labels), which in of itself embodies the personal and public identity struggle that has defined his music. His stronger moments are those when he taps into his roots, which he spits with such authenticity, it's hard to imagine anybody else being as worthy of an ambassador for a certain NYC slick talk milieu. However, it's when he slips into the cliche Italian mafia made man mold that he begins to falter. That isn't to say that the lines aren't slick, they just don't feel real. Just as rappers transitioned from once sporadic references to full-blown adoption and obsession with mafia iconography, is when the stories went from sincere to silly.
If you asked Nas who his spirit director was, he'd undoubtedly reply Scorsese, but in reality his art is far more akin to the work of Woody Allen. The two share a history of prolific output (in rap terms Nas' 10+ albums qualifies), though relative to the volume of output, there are only a handful of true classics that stand the test of time. They both endure internal struggles with the concept of celebrity; as noted, Nas makes multiple references to courtside NBA games, famous friends, and the limelight, yet can't seem to ever feel truly comfortable. Allen, who seemingly rejects any public attention, especially following the whole Soon-Yi scandal, manages to render the cult of celebrity, central to many, if not all of his recent films (e.g. Celebrity, To Rome With Love, Deconstructing Harry.) With this record Nas employs a retro-chic style that freshens classic nostalgia without lamenting the past, just as Allen does so in Midnight in Paris. And finally, their shared love for their hometown and the role it plays in their art goes without saying. (Is Nas our generation's Sammy Davis Junior?)
Simply put, when Nas masquerades as Escobar we are removed from a reality that is in of itself gripping. It is when he is in his rawest form, as Nasty Nas, that he rips lines that make you believe he came out the womb with a qualifier next to his given name.
At the end of the day, Nas doesn't need to assume a persona to demonstrate his talent. He simply need embrace the street poet that lives within him.
Nas is back, and he's managed to channel the God flow that catapulted him to the upper echelons of rap royalty. It's still summer, so whether you live in Queens or Quebec, you still got a minute to make Life Is Good your 'hood's soundtrack.