I have a tremendous beef with us. I spend hours on twitter every day hearing people complain about “real hip-hop”. Complaints that everything is about girls and money or violence and drugs. Everything is about that bounce. There are no more lyrics in hip-hop. No insight. Hip-hop is Dead.
Then Common drops a beautiful, musical, lyrical album – and it gets ignored. Sells a handful of copies and, despite critical acclaim, is basically a flop. He gave us what we asked for and we let it pass. We downloaded it, praised it with our tweets, and then moved on. We paid far more attention to his beef with Drake than we did to the album that he spent months crafting.
Lupe Fiasco drops one of the most brilliant albums of the decade in Food & Liquor, then does almost the impossible and drops another album at or near the level of the first! They were lyrical. They had good production. They were creative, conceptual and told all sorts of stories. They were refreshing. Lupe was quickly hailed as one of the most pure emcees in hip-hop.
Both of those albums, however, were only marginally successful from a sales standpoint. The label forced him to put out Lasers – an album that catered to a more casual fan base. Fans revolted. Lupe went to war with Atlantic. In the end, he released what the label had asked and it easily became his most successful album based on sales and charting measurements. Yet, fans lambast Lupe every day for releasing Lasers. He’s “fallen off”.
Truth is – we don’t support these “real hip-hop” albums. We give Common no choice but to create Universal Mind Control. We force Lupe to rap over techno beats. And then we blame the artist. We want them to make the type of music that we want, even if it means them sacrificing their livelihood, yet we choose not to support it. We want everyone to stay underground forever.
Either there aren’t enough of us to support natural hip-hop music or we don’t want to put in the effort. Either way, we shouldn’t blame the artist. We should blame ourselves. We, as fans, dictate what we hear – not the labels or radio. Their job is to create and promote what people will support financially. Labels are looking to generate sales and tour revenue, and radio is looking to raise ratings to sell advertisements. The listeners dictate that, yet we point the finger at every chance we get.
That was a prelude to this album. Nas has, in my opinion, the greatest hip-hop album in history on his resume with Illmatic. It’s a gift and a curse. It’s a curse because everything he ever released after it is unfairly compared. But it’s also a gift because I don’t think any other artist could’ve survived the disasters that were The Firm and Nastradamus and still maintain any semblance of relevance. It Was Written is a great example of the impossibly high standards that Nas faces. Looking back? That album was really remarkable. But because of the expectations set, it was met with bitter disappointment from most fans – even though it enjoyed commercial success. Once we remove the shadow of Illmatic, were able to appreciate it for what it is: a truly great album. It’s just not Illmatic 2, which is all anybody ever wants from Nas.
I usually stay away from leaks from albums that I’m really anticipating, but in this case, they were necessary to even have me excited. I was a huge Nas fan for about eight years. As time passed, I became disconnected from his music. I haven’t really anticipated anything of his since God’s Son. I usually like a handful of songs on each album, add them to my Best of Nas playlist, and then put the album to the side.
But the more I heard these Nas leaks and features, the more hopeful I became. Every song, for the most part, was strong. I was worried that these were just the highlights, so I remained skeptical.
With that said – let me finally get to the album.
This album is vintage Nas. He’s finally back to just rapping. No more awkward pauses or slow deliveries to try and satisfy a base that doesn’t really support him anyway. Gone is the stingy Nas who, like Joe Budden, believes that his words are so great, there’s no need to invest on production. Many times, Nas has done away with big name producers in favor of lesser-knows or up-and-comers. His production and hooks have been his Achilles heel throughout his career. He seems to finally have realized this. The bulk of the production is handled by No I.D. and Saalam Remi, with J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Swizz and others also contributing. And the hooks were mostly handled by some of R&B’s most respected vocalists, including Anthony Hamilton, Amy Winehouse and Mary J Blige. And they all compliment him well. The production is open and musical, but with enough drive in the drums to keep the pace moving well. The vocalists relieve the pressure on Nas and let him focus on what he does best – deliver insightful verses.
Where the album suffers a bit is in the fact that it’s sometimes hard to decipher one song from the next. While I prefer this mood, especially for Nas, it does suffer a bit from the same thing that hurt The Dreamer, The Believer, Ambition and Take Care. Sure, Loco-motive and The Don help give the album life, but the entire middle portion of the album has a similar vibe and mood. The topics might not be diverse enough for most listeners. Personally? I like it. I don’t mind an album with a consistent theme, though I can see how some people will get bored a bit
Lyrically, this is as good as I’ve heard him in a long time. He’s not trying to sound smarter than his listeners. He’s rarely talking about subjects where he’s out of his comfort zone. He raps about Nas. And who can talk better about a person than themselves?
I need to be careful. Am I judging this album fairly, based on what it really is? Or am I grading it on a curve and really saying “compared to his last few albums…” That’s why I really needed to sit with it for a bit and absorb it.
I had a majority of this review written before the weekend. I’m really glad that I took a few extra days though to compose my thoughts and be more objective than my initial couple dozen listens. There was an excitement in hearing Nas return closer to form than I had heard him in a decade. Life is Good is head and shoulders above any other Nas project to come out since Stillmatic.
But that’s exactly my problem. It’s more on the level of God’s Son than it is Illmatic, and I need to keep reminding myself of that while grading this album. See, I consider Illmatic his best album (best album in hip-hop history, actually), followed by It Was Written, Stillmatic, Lost Tapes, then God’s Son. Time will ultimately tell, but I feel that Life is Good will slot right between Stillmatic and God’s Son. It’s a very strong album front to back, with very few skip-able tracks. But there is a huge disparity between this and his first two albums. Lyrically, musically, conceptually – those first two were on a completely different level. I challenge anyone to listen to LiG and then listen to or read the lyrics on IWW and Illmatic. You’ll easily see the disparity.
Life is Good is especially impressive when you consider it comes 18 years after Nas released debut. There is no denying that Nas is one of the all-time greats. If you were to put Nas’ best 50 songs against any other artists’ best 50? Nas would undoubtedly be in the top two. But that isn’t how we judge artists. We assess them based off their entire body of work. And unfortunately, Nas has had many missteps. There are Nas supporters who liked most of his discography, but the general consensus of hip-hop fans would argue that Nas’ last good album was God’s Son (some would even say Stillmatic). Street’s Disciple, Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled all had very lukewarm receptions.
I’ll always wonder how different Nas’ career might’ve been if his double disc I Am…Nastradamus (The Autobiography) would’ve been released as planned. For those who don’t know the story, the double album leaked out early (before leaks were expected) and was heavily bootlegged. Sony then decided to release I Am… as a single disc and release disc 2 later in the year. They cut a bunch of the album’s best records and had Nas record a few new tracks (K-I-S-S-I-N-G). Most of the songs that were cut could later be found on the incredible Lost Tapes. Instead of releasing those tracks on the new disc, as originally planned, Nas wanted to record entirely new material. That’s how we ended up with the forgettable Nastradamus.
Imagine if Nas followed up Illmatic and It Was Written with an album that featured NY State of Mind 2, Fetus, Nas is LIke, Blaze a 50, Undying Love, Drunk by Myself, etc.? He would’ve had a three-album-run only rivaled by Eminem, Mobb Deep and A Tribe Called Quest. Even though I Am… was solid, it’ll always be ruined to me because of what could’ve been.
Matter of fact, here’s my personal list of how Nas’ albums rank against each other:
Illmatic (1994) 10.0
It Was Written (1996) 9.0
Stillmatic (2001) 8.5
Lost Tapes (2002) 8.5
Life is Good (2012) 8.0
God’s Son (2002) 7.5
I Am… (1999) 7.0
Untitled (2008) 6.0
Street’s Disciple (2004) 5.5
Hip-Hop is Dead (2006) 5.0
Nastradamus (1999) 3.5
The Firm (1997) 2.5
*Distant Relatives – I didn’t listen to this album enough to intelligently rank it.
LiG doesn’t break any new ground – it’s simply good music. There’s no groundbreaking concepts like I Gave You Power or Rewind. There’s no storytelling as vivid as Shootouts. There’s nothing lyrically on the level of NY State of Mind or Memory Lane. There’s no all-time classic record that can touch If I Ruled the World. There isn’t an all-around song as good as One Mic. I’m not sure how many, if any, of these tracks will eventually be considered amongst Nas’ best. I can see Cherry Wine, Worlds an Addiction and Bye Baby getting some consideration, though I think they’ll settle into that second tier of songs, much like the album itself.
Here is my list of Nas’ Top 25 Songs (Life is Good songs excluded):
- I Gave You Power
- One Mic
- The World is Yours
- N.Y. State of Mind
- The Message
- Life’s A Bitch
- Memory Lane
- You’re Da Man
- It Ain’t Hard to Tell
- Undying Love
- Fetus (Belly Button Window) original
- If I Ruled the World
- Project Windows
- Black Zombies
- Nas is Like
- Affirmative Action
- Made You Look
- I Can
- Black Girl Lost
- Thug’s Mansion
- Silent Murder
And his top 10 feature appearances:
- Eye for an Eye
- Mo Money, Mo Murda, Mo Homicide
- Verbal Intercourse
- Thug Calm Down
- Self Conscience
- Fast Life
- John Blaze
- Phone Tap
- Music for Life
- How Ya Livin’?
Overall, I think Nas dropped a very capable project. It was his most personal record since his debut. My favorite Nas is “Nas the Narrator”. I love hearing him tell stories. I really enjoyed this album. For him to drop this at this stage of his career is a true testament to his greatness. There have only been a few better, in my opinion. It’s an enjoyable project, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is as good as he’s ever been. It’s no better than his third or fourth best album – though it would be almost any other artist’s best. But this isn’t the time for highlighting the negatives. Today is a day for celebrating a legend. For celebrating “real hip-hop”. Today is the day we step up and tell the labels and radio exactly what type of music we demand. Today, we all do our part to bring art and insight back to hip-hop.
Please leave comments about the album and my Best Of Nas lists. I would love to hear your own top 5/10/25 songs and albums. Let’s get a great, old-school hip-hop debate going!
PS – I’m also working on a Jay-Z article that will review and rank all his albums, as well as discuss his top 50 songs of all-time.
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