Hip-hop icon Nas has faced a long stretch of irrelevance. 1994's Illmatic is a regular contender for "Greatest Hip-Hop Album of All Time," but nothing he's done since has come close. Nas' newest album, Life Is Good, isn't as good as Illmatic (what is?), but it's good enough that now's the time to stop talking about the greatness of Nas' career in the past tense.
Nas' strength has always lied in his Biggie Smalls-style visual storytelling. When he lays down a tale of lost friends on "A Queens Story," you can see 90s New York City in vivid detail. You can taste the champagne flowing, and you can even feel the chronic bubbling up through the haze of youthful abandon. When he eulogizes his relationship with his ex-wife Kelis on "Bye Baby," you feel like you've lived through their tumultuous relationship. Far too often in the last twenty years, Nas has abandoned his "chronicler of the ghetto" storytelling for misguided pop attempts (it must be noted this is the same man that wrote "Get Jiggy Wit It" for Will Smith) and self-righteous absurdities. With one sole exception (the stale club banger "Summer on Smash"), this album sees Nas fully embracing what made him one of the most beloved rappers of the 90s rather than trying to be somebody else.
It isn't just Nas' lyrical style that evokes the moody, socially conscious rap of the 90s. It's also his decidedly old-school production. With the exception of "Summer on Smash," the album eschews percussive electronic beats or any hints of dubstep for what I initially described to a friend as what Late Registrations would have sounded like if it had been released in the 90s. The sound is far more expansive and dramatic than Illmatic or Stillmatic. It incorporates a healthy selection of soaring soul/R&B vocals (including great work from the late Amy Winehouse on "Cherry Wine") and an almost omnipresent string section. Still, though he widens the palette of his sound, it's still familiar enough that you could see yourself cruising down Bushwick in the summer of '98 blasting tracks like "Reach Out" (which features fellows 90s scion Mary J. Blige).
If there's a single word that describes the album, it's "consistent," which both works to the album's favor and points to its only serious problem. There's only one track that's a straight out dud, and the rest of the album isn't just good -- it's great. Yet, it's great in that razor sharp lyrical way that Nas is the classic master. Sadly, there's only one (maybe two) standout singles on the album. The easy favorite is the confessional "Daughters" which finds Nas laying his soul bare as a hip-hop father and trying to set an important example on the perils and pleasures of being a dad. "The Don" is the album's other closest contender to a single, but it's reggaeton beats seems like a serious stylistic diversion from the rest of the sons. What made Illmatic so flawless was the inclusion of a ton of great singles alongside Nas' searing and insightful stories, and that doesn't seem to be the case here.
Has a rapper ever been this old and released an album this good? Jay-Z is six years younger than Nas, and his last great solo album, The Black Album, came out in 2003. So the likely answer is no. Whether this is the beginning of a career resurgence or the ultimate closing statement from one of the most respected names in the game, it doesn't matter. Life Is Good should be approached on its own merits, and, taken that way, it's a success. Along with Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, it's one of the most immediately enjoyable hip-hop/R&B albums of the year (there is so much R&B on this album that it can only be considered a hybrid).