Something strange happens when a rapper pushes 40, they either become a reggae artist with Lion at the end of their name (Snoop Lion anybody?) or they stay loyal to the genre that made them famous. Thankfully, Nas keeps it hip-hop with his new album and, not only that, has managed to sell loads of records in doing so. He has been hit or miss with his last few albums; “Untitled” didn’t quite live up to expectations but his collaboration LP with Damien Marley proved his creativity remains intact. So with this in mind I put on “Life Is Good” hoping to hear another gem from the legendary emcee.

“No Introduction” kicks off the album with a dramatic piano loop and slow tempo drums, this is Nas older and wiser rapping in a reflective mood. One notable verse includes the lines “organising a billion black mother fuckers to take over J.P. and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs, and teach the World facts, give Saudi their oil back”. Nas always sounds his best when he is delivering this sort of political commentary. The piece also includes references to Kelis and The Notorious B.I.G, which adds a personal touch to the narrative.

“Loco-motive”, the album’s second track, features old time collaborator Large Professor (who has also recently released his own new LP). This song is an early album highlight and is best described as possessing a ‘futuristic Illmatic’ sound. Nas takes the raw old school New York feel and breathes new life into it with the same heavy emphasis on lyrical content as his greatest work. A modern classic boom bap song; many fans have yearned to hear Nas in this sort of mood for quite some years. Perhaps it was this nostalgic indulgence that prompted Nas to finish the track with a dedication that says “for my trapped in the 90’s n*ggas”.

“A Queens Story” has an epic, cinematic vibe to it, opening with a trumpet sound that befits it’s ambitious intent. Nas takes it back to the streets with stories of his own near death experience in an era long gone. He’s in rare form as he reminisces on acquaintances lost in gang warfare and the fragile nature of success. The first three tracks blend seamlessly together to create an aesthetic seldom seen in modern hip-hop. Nas’s rhymes are technical and well crafted, never sounding out of step with his production. This song in particular will satisfy hip-hop heads searching to catch some quick fire word play.

“Accident Murderers” is the albums first dip, it’s not that it’s a bad song exactly, but it lacks the fire and passion contained in the album’s opening tracks. Rick Ross’ feature doesn’t help either, as the fact I haven’t heard one solid verse from him (in his entire career) doesn’t change here. The piece is saved mostly by No-ID’s inspired instrumental and a semi-clever idea from Nas, who has always been comfortable with mafia themed content. At this point, the album takes a huge shift sound wise, as if entering the second phase of the project.

“Daughters” (video, right) and “Reach Out” (featuring Mary J. Blige) tone down the testosterone levels considerably. “Daughters” is a competent track that deals with fatherhood but is somewhat generic in it’s execution. Perhaps it would be more memorable if it wasn’t so predictable and inferior to other “conscious” tracks by Nas. “Reach Out” finds me reaching for the skip button and feels like a missed opportunity to use the awesome talents of Mary J Blige. Considering the capabilities of both artists, this one leaves me feeling quite flat emotionally. The beats on both tracks are more radio friendly than the dark hip-hop sounds which Nas opens the album with.

The next track is a welcome depature. “World’s An Addiction” is so grand and inspiring it could wind up on a James Bond soundtrack with it’s dramatic chorus from soul singer Anthony Hamilton. It’s far from a classic but it get’s the album back on track and finds a better balance between the street Nas and the R’N’B tracks he tries to work on every so often. Unfortunately this slight return to form is ruined by the next piece “Summer On Smash”, which is a car crash of a song produced by the ever-worsening “Swizz Beatz”. There is something almost comical about hearing a producer hop onto to the instrumental he makes, hijacking any personal vision Nas may have hoped to achieve. “Summer On Smash” sounds like something Nelly would have passed on for being too pop.

“You Wouldn’t Understand” is a far more credible track from Nas, it’s a pleasant sounding cheerful piece, with Victoria Monet providing a foot tapping chorus. It works because Nas gets back to basics lyrically. It might only be about spending a ton of cash he probably doesn’t have, but it taps into a sound similar to 2Pac’s “To Live And Die In L.A.” and other street singles with a feel good element. “Back When” follows on in a similar vein, sampling MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and mixing it with soulful choir sounds. It includes the curious lines “Pac left me inside a rap World with niggas that wink at other rappers, undercover niggas spit every way, won’t be surprised if all their rides have federal plates”, curious in that Rick Ross features on track four.

The last phase of the album increases in quality considerably. “The Don” is one of the best hip-hop singles of the year and the only true club banger from Nas that is featured on “Life Is Good”. It samples Super Cat with emphatic success, the show stopping beat is matched only by Nas’s expert flow. The next track “Stay” features the jazzy style from Nas that he perfected on certain tracks from albums like “God’s Son” and “Hip-Hop Is Dead”. It offers something different to proceedings and works well as a transition piece for the last two songs (that’s if you don’t have the deluxe version). “Cherry Wine” features Amy Winehouse; the song works well because of their real life connection adding to the chemistry. The personal touch continues with “Bye Baby”; a song dealing with his ex-wife Kelis.

The truth is, when reviewing a Nas album you can’t help but compare it to his best work. With so many classic titles in his discography, the natural reaction is to compare his 2012 effort with old favourites. “Life Is Good” will not stand the test of time like “Stillmatic” or “God’s Son”, but it isn’t a bad release either. It has it’s moments without ever fully delivering. If it was an album from a new artist it may be considered a great debut, but this is Nas we are talking about – so it must be judged by his high standards. I will reach for this LP for certain songs which provide glimpses into the man’s genius, but will have plenty to skip past too. Hopefully Nas will keep putting out music this year to add to this album’s good points. Nas says he was inspired by Marvin Gaye to make “Life Is Good”, perhaps it is setting the bar this high that leaves me feeling only slighty satisfied with this release, although crucially always wanting to hear more.

Life Is Good is available now on Def Jam and iTunes
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