Optimistically Speaking, Life Is Good: A Review of Nas’s Latest

Posted on July 21, 2012 by Kiese
– Reviewed by Abby Raskin

Before I reached double-digits, I was a budding pessimist. Figuring their matrimonial
bond-breaking a sort of cosmic irony brought on by the suburban gods in an effort to
rustle up some privileged-kid feathers, my parents’ divorce jaded me.

It also brought me double vacations.
At the time, my parents’ insistence on double-booking trips in the name of parental equality felt incredibly exhausting, and in my mind, their compulsion to spread my time so thin was simply inexplicable and borderline control-freakish. The earliest post-divorce jaunt I remember was dad’s turn and it arrived during the height of my pre-preteen angst. Barely old enough to read, I squinted to make out the three words sketched in curly blue font across the pastel T-shirt of an overweight waterslide operator in the Wisconsin Dells: “Life is good.” I muttered to myself the six year-old version of “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” as I plunged stumpy, cynical legs-first into the beautifuldarktwisted tube. Forming an L-shape with my torso and clenching my eyelids together, I crossed my fingers in hope for a Waterslide to Nowhere.

While I’ve managed to keep a few gratuitous handfuls of good old fashioned, woe-is-me pessimism within reach, my twentysomething outlook is considerably more hopeful (and considerably less narcissistic, I hope) than that of my earliest years.

So when I first learned the title of Nas’ new album, his tenth total and first in four years, I didn’t bear any visceral resentment toward the three-word phrase in the way I once did. Nas’ Life is Good, not much unlike his debut Illmatic, invites listeners to actively—and at times, counterintuitively—choose optimism.

Launching Life through the eyes of a hungry, hustling younger Nasir Jones, “No Introduction” sets the stage for an album comprised of the hazy dotted lines between past Nas and present Nas, between son Nas and father Nas, between “hood” Nas and “civilized” Nas, between Ether Nas and heartbroken Nas. Nas the Celebrity confides his biggest secrets to us—well aware that we probably already know them. His lyrics, sometimes violently so, serve as testimony to the consistencies and inconsistencies in how he lives and loves.

Revealed my life/You will forgive me, you will love me, hate me, judge me, relate to me

Life’s opening beats and rhymes coalesce into a sort of nostalgic force-field that surrounds the rest of the album. Over the course of its 14 tracks, Nas shouts out some of hip-hop’s most formative players, from Biggie (“No Introduction”), to Slick Rick (“Loco-Motive”), to E-Money (“A Queens Story”), to Eric B (“You Wouldn’t Understand”), to MC Shan (“Back When”), and finally, the late Heavy D (“The Don”). The air of nostalgia is carried by the samples as well; Rather seamlessly, Nas integrates the work of Run-DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Super Cat, MC Shan, New Edition, Miles Jaye, and Isaac Hayes, to name a few. Lyrically, he looks to the past perhaps most clearly in the final verse of the third track, “A Queens Story,” as he laments the role money has come to play in the death of his peers (“cash corrupts the loyal”), his present voice rhetorically wondering where all the hustlers went.

As the album progresses, his brashly honest take-me-or-leave-me (“either you’re laughing at me or you’re laughing with me, ha”) approach becomes nearly impossible not to take. Though his verses narrate tales of struggle, the sincerity by which Nas reveals and relives those hardships, the fluidity by which he launches himself and listeners into and out of old and new imaginations and reimaginations of Nas and Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, all breathe life into the album’s deceptively simple title. Nas’ personal growth becomes embodied by his daughter Destiny in the track “Daughters” as he reconciles the reality of his own flawed past with the mistakes of his daughter, hoping to both empathize this time and do better next time.

They say the coolest playas and foulest heartbreakers in the world/God get’s us back, he makes us have precious little girls

But despite a collection of tracks that, like “Daughters,” both entertain and edify, the album doesn’t fall short of a few cheap shots at women. On “Summer on Smash,” in particular, Nas and Miguel’s verses are coated in little more than bad ass bitches, champagne (wishes), freaks and bathing suits on a yacht.

She’s fly; Black, Asian, Boriqua/Italian, mixed chicks, Middle Eastern/Eritrean, Ethiopian, how you opening.

Even so, the presence of female vocalists, from the powerful R&B flow of Mary J. on “Reach Out” to the honeyed neosoul hooks of Victoria Monet on “You Wouldn’t Understand”—is felt. The posthumous and penultimate track “Cherry Wine” summons the retrograde crooning and scatting of Amy Winehouse, forming a syncopated hide-and-seek number between lost soul mates. The song is primarily carried by Winehouse and may even be the highlight of the album.

Where is he/The man who is just like me/ I heard he was hiding somewhere I can’t see …Your smile put me at ease/You’re the woman I need but where is she?

The final track “Bye Baby” is a reflection on the love he once felt for his ex-wife, a thoughtful sequence of verses all at once accusatory, loving and complacent.

You screaming at the racist cops in Miami was probably/The highlight of my life/…Just another day in the life of two people in love/But it wasn’t enough

At moments, Life is Good seems to function as little more than a confessional for all the rapper’s secrets everyone already knows: he and Kelis divorced. His teenage daughter Instagrammed her collection of rubbers. He owes money to the IRS. He sleeps around a little. He smokes weed (a lot). Keenly self-aware of the limitations to “revealing” the life of Inner Nas in light of (and perhaps in spite of) Celebrity Nas, his lyrics manage, painstakingly and beautifully, to evoke moments of one-on-one intimacy with the figure’s mostly public life. It speaks to a (maybe) collective inclination to retreat toward pessimism and cover-up in moments of embarrassment or struggle or regret—but whether his pseudo-confessions are merely a symptom of fame or are evidence of some of the most complicated relationships he’ll ever have to divorce or parent, Life is Good compels listeners to compassionately, optimistically—and maybe even publically—reckon with our imperfect parents, selves, daughters, and husbands.

Put simply: Nas’ tenth offering serves as a reminder that whether your struggles seem as small and straightforward as a parent who loves you too much, or as big and complex as a water-slide, that in the end, you can always pull your head above water.

Life is good, no matter what.

– Abby Raskin was born in Chicago and is a 2011 graduate of Vassar College, where she majored in International Studies and wrote a senior thesis titled “Rapping the Diaspora: Constructing and Deconstructing Narratives of Haitian Rap Artists Living in the United States.” She is currently working at a nonprofit in New York and lives in Harlem with her 7.5-pound dog. She can be contacted at abbyraskin@gmail.com.
About Kiese
Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.