Sunday, July 22, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Nas - Life Is Good

by Robby Beck

When someone asks me what the best hip-hop album of all time is, my immediate, and ultimate, response is "Paul's Boutique and Illmatic" (no, I won't pick one from the two). The former because it showed me the importance of adventurous and experimental production in hip-hop; the latter because it is the perfect example of the role of the rapper. Illmatic showed me the best in passion, lyricism, storytelling, and technique that a rapper could achieve. The praises of this album have been sung for years, but that makes it no less relevant in my book.

But it's been 18 years, and things have changed. It seems that Nas has sadly suffered from "groundbreaking first album" syndrome, where nothing else after that release has nearly the same impact. I won't tell you there have been no good albums, especially the next couple after Illmatic; but Nas has been in the business of underwhelming listeners for most of the new millennium, chasing after commercial rap and mafioso rap conventions that never shone the way the philosophical and socially conscious approach he had used to.

But now we have Life Is Good, and I'll start out with a positive: even if Nas is relatively older, his flow and overall delivery doesn't seem to have aged a day. On many of these tracks he still sounds as hungry and energetic as he did when he was 20. But what continues to suffer is Nas' substance; his rhymes range from underwhelming to flat out cringe inducing. There are personal themes at work here, like pleas to his children not to turn to the temptations of the world, Nas' feelings on his recent divorce, and a nostalgic tribute to his early life in Queens. While I'd rather hear Nas talk about his personal life than some other things I'll get to, and he's definitely more earnest when he's doing it, unfortunately none of those stories are told with the same level of poetry that made Nas such an incredible lyricist back in the day. When it comes to the lyrics, what you see is what you get. You never need to look at them twice to get any kind of nuance or new angle from any of them. The track "Accidental Murderers" chronicles a felony murder that was starting to get interesting, but the story stops dead in its tracks when Rick Ross uses his feature spot as an opportunity to talk about his money and cars, and advertise his new album. It sucks even more, because I was kinda digging the beat too.

But Rick Ross is not the only one being materialistic here, because when Nas isn't talking about his personal life, he turns this album into a commercial for his luxury vacation life. The biggest offender of this is the Swizz Beatz and Miguel featured "Summer on Smash". Everything in this one, the beat, the lyrics, the features, everything is so sickeningly radio-friendly, misogynistic, and ear abusing. He even goes so far as to advertise Cîroc Vodka and his Illmatic Fila shoes (which as of this review, have not been released). I expect more, and I think everyone expects more from someone the likes of Nas.

As far as the instrumentals go, this album continues to be a rocky, rocky road. Some of them are very good, like "Loco-Motive", which sounds more akin to the boom bap style that Nas used to rap behind; and "The Don", which I would love to hear the instrumental of. But all too often the album's beats continue the theme of commercialization, and I won't lie, I found myself bobbing my head to a couple of these tracks. "Accidental Murderers" has a piano led beat that I liked, and as unapologetically sugary "You Wouldn't Understand" is, I found it to be a guilty pleasure, and I can even say I liked the hook (but it sucks that Nas goes back to product placement on that one, this time for Timbaland boots). But the hooks that don't work on this album really don't work. "Summer on Smash" has likely the most offensive one, yet again, but there are more talented people here than Swizz Beatz that don't bring much to the table at all. Mary J. Blige, who can sing the paint off a chapel, is utterly wasted here and given this vocal melody that's just unbearably boring and flat. And Amy Winehouse's "feature" seems to be here for no other reason than to put an Amy Winehouse vocal on here; it doesn't fit with the rest of the song, and the fact that it was just clumsily tacked on shows. Some tracks like "World's An Addiction" and "Stay" try to reach emotional climaxes that I don't think are even warranted, because the instrumentals go nowhere, and Nas' energy doesn't fit with what the instrumental is doing. It doesn't help that the strings on tracks like that sound either MIDI-created or lifted from a Disney soundtrack.

So unfortunately, I have almost nothing but complaints on this new Nas album. I came away liking very, very few tracks and being very displeased, to take it lightly, with the rest. Nas has the artistic freedom, and talent, to do whatever he wants, and it seems that he just wants to make a very commercial hip-hop album with occasional personal earnestness. I still love and highly regard Nas' earlier work, but it seems almost as if he's no longer the rapper I once knew.

(Also, Nas turns out to be a pretty good troll by giving is "Nasty" last year, a fantastic song, and relegating it to a bonus track on the finished album. Nicely done. I'll leave you with that one to ease the pain of Life Is Good.)

Score: Strong 3/Lite 4

(Life is not so good in the world of Nas. But it is on Robby's twitter, @ClydeNut)

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