That was the refrain rumbling throughout the rap Internet for much of the last decade. It was a reference to the after-effects of the Summer Slam at Summer Jam, when Jay-Z and Nas’ war went public. Jay-Z did you-know-what with you-know-who. Nas made “ether” the best blog-popularized verb until “Fanute.” And hundreds of thousands of otherwise sane men and woman argued about whether one needed a mustache to be properly suave. Their findings were largely inconclusive.
When large groups of people bicker over the respective merits of two unquestionably great talents, they’re really arguing about archetypes. On paper, Nas and Jay-Z seemed identical: Two New York rappers with famous R&B singer wives, Horatio Alger narratives and close ties to the Notorious B.I.G, the dead king.
“Jay-Z is fun. Jay-Z goes to yacht parties. Nas is invited, but he spends the party wondering how much the champagne cost and the level of corruption that afforded everyone the opportunity to enjoy such luxuries.”
But behind the aviator lenses, they couldn’t have been any more different. Nas was God’s son, the child prodigy blessed by Rakim and told to protect the temple armed with only a pen, a pad, and a 40. His debut dynamited the East Coast then amidst a cyclical search for a savior. The Source gave it 5 Mics; it’s widely called the best rap album ever and every one of his albums since has had to unfairly grapple with post-Illmatic stress syndrome. Nas is aloof, cerebral, opinionated, and he’s never been comfortable with fame, money, or catering to radio programmers. He was too good, too soon, to ever truly give a fuck.
Jay-Z once wrote a song called “You Must Love Me.” Until he landed a fluke hit with Foxy Brown, he was already halfway to obscurity. Then he sampled Annie and well, you’ve heard the rest. The guy owns the Nets, gets called the Black Frank Sinatra with a straight face, and goes to Grizzly Bear concerts. He’s a cool guy and even if you don’t like his new necktie, don’t worry, he’ll be onto the next one soon.
The pair embody classic conflicts of art vs. commerce, underground vs. mainstream, adapting to the whims of popular fortune vs. braying that hip hop is dead. Even their spouses couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. One of them is the All-American Golden Girl who gave single ladies marital advice that sounded like it was scripted by DeBeers. Meanwhile, Kelis’ introduction to the world was a song that screamed, “I hate you so much right now!”
But Nas lost. I’m not talking about who won the battle between him and Jay-Z. That doesn’t matter any more — if it ever did. If both aren’t in your all-time Top 10 then you’re doing it wrong. No, Nas lost the way that normal people lose at life. He had money stolen through careless business deals. He owed money to the IRS. He got divorced. He dealt with the temporary insanity of a teenaged daughter. His mother passed. He made some mediocre albums. But he survived. More importantly, the carnage allowed him to reclaim his soul.
Soul is a four-letter word for good reason. Its invocation inevitably conjures images of angels, dull liturgy, and Cee-Lo at his winged worst. Musicians might not need it to be great, but artists do. The most superficial comparisons for Life is Good come from rock and R&B, genres with a more sizable chunk of divorce opuses. You could compare it to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. But those seething antecedents are far different from Nas’ tenth solo album. “Bye Baby” is the only song explicitly written about his marriage. While “No Introduction,” offers outright love to his ex-wife.
If anything, Nas’ renaissance reminds me most of Neil Young in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — the Harvest Moon era that unleashed his third wave of artistic vitality. It followed a period that Young described as having “My soul … completely encased. I didn’t even consider that I would need a soul to play my music. That’s when I shut the door on pain, I shut the door on my music. That’s what I did. And that’s how people get old.”
If you listened to Nas’ cranky last two albums Hip Hop is Dead and Untitled, the Queensbridge native seemed prematurely ancient and embittered. The role call of semi-retired 90s rappers that was “Where Are They Know,” may be the closest rap ever gets to Abe Simpson screaming “We Want Matlock.” (RIP Andy G).
But where he was once enraged, Nas now feels empathy. “Daughters” grapples with the lack of discipline that often accompanies being a cool parent. He sagely considers the paradox of players bearing daughters and hypocritically lying in wait with a shotgun for younger players trying to scheme on said teenage daughters. “No Introduction” finds him naked with a 21-year old Brazilian girl. Rather than glorify it (as he’s often done in the past), he retreats and tells the listener not to applaud. He’s pushing 40 and she’s only four years older than his daughter. He’s exhausted but struggling with temptation, doomed to repeat the sins of his father. Rarely has he felt realer.
Jay-Z’s ferocious “Takeover” landed one particularly lacerating wound on Nas: “You are not deep.” This tendency to drop knowledge has led to some of Nas’ most pedantic moments. At its worst, he can feel like he’s rapping an 8th grade history textbook. Paradoxically, when he’s not trying too hard to be deep, Nas can achieve poignancy equal to anyone who ever picked up a mic. And “Cherry Wine,” his collaboration with Amy Winehouse finds Nas striking the rare balance of commercial sensibilities and artistic honesty that’s often eluded him. As the late singer scats on the sax-elevated outro, Nas’ refrain fades out: life is good… no matter what. We understand why it’s good without the need for explanation. This is victory as survival. He is breathing, he can afford New York City rent, he still has a recording contract and the freedom to create. He’s a legacy artist in an industry that no longer mints them. How else to explain that “Summer on Smash” is the only ill-fitting radio grab on a Def Jam-released record?
Life is Good is a Nas album, in the classic definition. Subway cars clatter, he speaks with criminal slang, rappers are monkey flipped. It was no accident that “Nasty” was the leaked street single. The heads have been waiting for Nas to reclaim that nastiness since he dropped it in favor of Esco. And Life is Good finds his tek-in-the-dresser poetics the most rejuvenated they’ve been since Stillmatic.
Throughout his career, Nas has often valued easy-bake ideas over concrete images. But on Life is Good, he lets the symbols and spray paint speak for him. It plays almost like a memoir of New York City from 1975-2000. Dead friends float around him. Everyone from Stretch from the Live Squad and 2Pac to anonymous Queens hustlers flash the steel for a second. There are memories of getting a gun at 15 and robbing trains the next year. Listening to Slick Rick, copping the Kareem’s before there were Air Jordans, burning his mouth on a slice of pizza. He threads the narrative through his contemporary alienation: Moroccan apartments and empty sexual encounters. He’s too hood to hang with the rich and too rich to hang in the hood.
If that doesn’t sound like “fun,” it’s because it probably isn’t. Whenever Nas tries to sound like he’s having fun, well, see “Braveheart Party.” He’s much better as a seeker, striving for contentment and serenity, observing his surroundings with a skeptical eye. Jay-Z is fun. Jay-Z goes to yacht parties. Nas is invited, but he spends the party wondering how much the champagne cost and the level of corruption that afforded everyone the opportunity to enjoy such luxuries. On Life is Good, he’s finally come to terms with the fact that he’d rather be the guy bringing a biography on Stalin to the beach. That’s cool too.
Of course, we also wanted banging beats. Subpar production has historically been Nas’ Achilles heel, and Life is Good works to redress that traditional failing. With burners from No ID, Salaam Remi, Buckwild, and even the late Heavy D, Nas finds a soundtrack that fits his sentimental flights of the mind. Everything from “The Bridge, Run DMC and Eric B & Rakim are juxtaposed with Supercat, Isaac Hayes, and Chopin. It’s neo-boom bap that somehow doesn’t feels dated. It just feels fitting.
Look, you can nitpick over any one of a dozen details about this record. “World’s an Addiction” is the worst kind of Nas song, rooted in a trite metaphor and saddled with a saccharine hook. The beats will never be as good as those on a Kanye West record. He still isn’t working with Primo and Large Professor (even though the latter pops up briefly on “Locomotive”). These may be valid criticisms, but they are not fair. All we ever really wanted from Nas was unclouded honesty. And this is the most emotionally raw record he’s made since his first. He is the rap world’s Cy Young. He may have the most losses, but he also has the most wins. Life is Good is the sort of record that ought to deaden the comparisons to his debut or his feud with Jay-Z. It forces you to stop keeping score and just listen.
Nas’ Life is Good is out now via Def Jam. Watch Nas perform “The Don” at his album release party, below: