Nas’s career path has been a strange, contradictory one: It’s clear that he’s a legend, but he’s always being pressured to live up to it, as though Illmatic was his own personal Citizen Kane. The last time he reasserted his status back in 2001, it was thanks to a feud with Jay-Z that lit a fire under his ass. But after a series of increasingly uneven late-career albums, Nas has found another route back to form, embracing the idea that maybe his position is already secure and he doesn’t have anything left to prove. But don’t mistake this attitude for complacency: Life is Good, his 11th studio album, is steeped in reflection, a mixture of gratitude and regret, retrospect and foresight.
The first four tracks are the kind of intricately constructed, human-level crime narratives Nas has always excelled at — statements of influence (“No Introduction”; “Loco-Motive”), tense come-up/fall-down scenarios (“A Queens Story”), payback gone tragically wrong (“Accident Murderers”) — but tinged with the bittersweet undertone of not having enough peers who made it big alongside him. The last three — the ruminative, frustrated “Stay”, the romantic-daydream “Cherry Wine” and the Kelis breakup wrap-up “Bye Baby” — reveal that he’s just as adept talking about the aspirations and frustrations of love. And in between there’s Nas figuring out how to be a model father (“Daughters”), reconciling his hood roots and his jet-set present (“Reach Out”), invoking his origins to dress down pretenders (“Back When”), and doing the memory of Heavy D proud with his hardest got-mine anthem since “Made You Look” (“The Don”). The production fits the legacy-minded tone — no brostep or Guetta, no attempts at exhuming an ossified ’94, just a slate of good-to-excellent beats from names that’ve always suited him well (Salaam Remi, No I.D., Buckwild) and A-list R&B hooks (Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton, Amy Winehouse). In a hip-hop era where the most pivotal icons are dealing with the idea of becoming elder statesmen, Life Is Good is the kind of album an Illmatic acolyte would hope a pushing-40 Nas could make.