This is the knock against Nas: his choices of instrumentals don't match his impeccable wordplay. If they did, the New York MC would be hip hop's all-time greatest.
But that the rapper born Nasir Jones remains in the conversation despite his spotty discography speaks highly of his lyrical prowess. For almost 20 years, Nas has been one of hip hop's most insightful storytellers, whether he's flipping the tale in reverse or reflecting upon the lifespan of a gun. While the results are reflective, Nas has always looked outward, using his lens to tell imagined stories of pain and perseverance with vivid candour.
On Life is Good, Nas' 10th solo studio album, he turns the spotlight on himself, detailing everything about his divorce from pop singer Kelis (Bye Baby), his shortcomings as a father (Daughters), and his chequered upbringing (A Queens Story). As with any Nas record, you can see the story unfold as his raspy baritone tumbles from the speakers. But unlike his recent recordings, the music matches his narrative urgency.
On No Introduction, the album's triumphant opening track, Nas deliberates: "15, I got a gun, 16, I robbed a train / Licked off a shot for fun, what's got inside my brain." He's brutally honest with himself, and he's equally acerbic with the listening public. World's an Addiction is a fuming criticism of synthetic compulsions: athletes on steroids, pastors hooked on porn, billionaires with sadistic sexual fantasies.
Nas wags the finger with a volcanic rage that never boils over - but elsewhere, the veteran is downright celebratory. On Back When, he uses filtered drums and choral moans to assess his place in hip hop: "I don't get the credit I deserve, that's why I hate doing interviews."
Surely, Nas has the right to be aloof. His debut album, 1994's Illmatic, is such a heralded classic that his subsequent work is given short shrift. Yet Nas stays the course, no matter how rough the road.
When Kelis left him, she took everything she owned, except her green wedding dress (which appears on the cover art). But here, he exorcises the turmoil with a focused set of sustained brilliance. So life really is good for Nas. Great, even.