For Nas, as with Orson Welles, his first was always his best. His 1994 debut, Illmatic, was unexpected, combative, clever, supremely confident, and often cocky (after all, every rapper worth his salt is his own best hype man). Nas has tried to live up to the potential of that masterful introduction for nearly two decades, so it is understandable why he would be so filled with vitriol. Always looking back at his humble beginnings in Queensbridge, Nas is now looking to burn bridges. Life is Good is the rapper’s midlife crisis.
On Illmatic, the then-21-year-old artist proclaimed, “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high. / ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” Here, he changes the thesis, but “Life is Good” is an irony, or perhaps an exercise in positive thinking. Really, life is pretty hard for Nas, but not in the way it was back when he was trying to survive the streets. He’s got grown-up problems now: The hip hop world has in some ways moved on without him, with younger, less talented rappers like 50 Cent calling him out; his braggadocio as expressed through recurring Christ imagery (see: God’s Son, Street’s Disciple, God’s Gift, Scriptures and Testaments, etcetera ad nauseum) feels tired and charmless; and his marriage to fellow artist Kelis, with whom he had a son, has failed.
(The album’s cover shows Nas sitting, sad and despondent, holding Kelis’ wedding dress. But really, Nas, did you expect it to work out with the brainchild behind “Milkshake”?)
Throughout the album, he overtly disses his ex-wife, making their “irreconcilable differences” seem like a laughable understatement. On “Roses”, the chorus repeats, “Just like a rose / Everybody knows that you are so beautiful / But I feel a thorn in my hide.” And Nas himself begins the song’s final verse with, “Them Xanax can’t manage your maniac manic-depressive expressions.” On “Bye Baby”, he gets even more personal with his public airing of the couple’s dirty laundry:
Listen, could you imagine writing your deposition?
Divorce lawyer telling you how this gonna be ending?
With you paying out the ass, and I’m talking half.
Not some but half. No serious, half.
Half of your soul, half of your heart you leaving behind.
It’s either that or die, I wanted piece of mind.
With his rivalry with Jay-Z reconciled, Nas seeks a new adversary—this time, his past, his mistakes. But what makes this work more than just a hatchet job is the rapper’s willingness to turn his potshots inward. The most self-reflective and touching track off of Life is Good is “Daughters”, which serves as both an admission of his own guilt and a plea for all fathers of daughters to get serious.
This morning I got a call, nearly split my wig.
This social network said, “Nas, go and get ya kid.”
Her mother cried when she answered,
Said she don’t know what got inside this child’s mind, she planted
A box of condoms on her dresser then she Instagrammed it.
At this point I realized I ain’t the strictest parent.
Unfortunately, Nas is hesitant to go for his own jugular. He’s sure to mention that he tried to raise his daughter right by providing for her, by sending her to private school, then to public school to “get a balance.” He does confess that he has been a poor role model for her, though, recognizing that she has seen his history with women and that she knows of his thug past. Still, I wished he would cop to his own failings, but instead the rapper returns to his familiar (and slightly perverse) sense of religiosity, saying, “God gets us back, he makes us have precious little girls.” Nas sees fatherhood as his cross to bear, I suppose.
And I can forgive the pulled punches; it’s damned hard to admit to being an unsatisfactory parent. Where Life is Good falters some, for me, is when Nas goes off-topic entirely. He transitions from introspective work—the kind of fascinating lyrical exploration that I would expect from a frustrated rapper approaching his forties—to traditional and uninspired hubris, like on “Nasty” when Nas reverts to his old ways, armed with a long-dead nickname (“Nasty Nas”) and a puffed up chest: “I come… to pop thousand-dollar bottles of scotch, smoke pot and heal the people… / Count how many bad honeys I slut, it’s a high number.” This plays as little more than a club jam, undermining much of the progress of this particular therapy.
The track that’s sure to receive the most attention, though, is “Cherry Wine”. And rightfully so—the song represents the perfect marriage of emotional nakedness and head-bobbing pacing. “Cherry Wine” is the rapper’s ode to the next most important woman in his life. Nas is looking beyond the rebounds, beyond the spite-fucks in the wake his divorce. This is his hip hop Match.com profile.
Amy Winehouse recorded the chorus for the track, which at that time probably seemed like a vibrant love song, nothing more. But following the singer’s death, “Cherry Wine” takes on a haunting tone, ethereal and elusive. Rather than a man and a woman who have yet to meet, there is now unrequitedness in its most tearful form. Winehouse croons, “Where is he? / The man who is just like me?” And Nas opens:
I want someone who like the champagne I like.
My a-alike, someone to talk me off the bridge any day or night.
She teach me how to live, she ain’t afraid of life.
Not easily impressed with the rich and famous life.
You’re the woman I need, but where is she?
If life is indeed good, she’s out there. And for Nas’ sake, I hope his best days aren’t behind him. He’s got a lot of growing up left to do.