Nas will forever be haunted by “Illmatic.” The album is perceived as a classic among his peers but it is also what people quickly refer to everytime he releases a new project and attempts to evolve from the pre-adolescent picture on the album cover with Queensbridge Housing Projects in the background. Even when he lives up to expectations (1996’s “It Was Written”) or surpasses them (2001’s “Stillmatic,” 2002’s “God’s Son” and “The Lost Tapes”) Nas can’t seem to shake the ills of “Illmatic.” But after a very public divorce, the birth of his son Knight, and rumors of financial woes Nas has more things to worry about than chasing his debut.
LOVE IT: The album’s opening track produced by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League is epic in revealing the emotion of Nas. It conveys sadness similar to that of “The Lonely Man” theme song used at the beginning and conclusion of “The Incredible Hulk” TV series where we often see an alienated David Banner hitchhiking with a duffle bag on his shoulder in hopes of relocating to a place where he can rid himself of the Hulk. On the intro Nas covers everything from growing up poor, committing crimes as a kid, and getting advice from Biggie Smalls. But he is also plotting a world takeover when he says, “Really what’s in my mind is organizing a billion black motherfuckers to take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs/And teach the world facts/And give Saudi their oil back.” He uses “Life is Good” as mantelpiece where he acknowledges hip-hop history while also managing to redefine it.
Nas samples “Peter Piper” from Run DMC as he takes you on a journey to his birthplace on “A Queens Story.” He then borrows from MC Shan’s “The Bridge” to take us on a trip on how life was “Back When.” Eric B. & Rakim are lightly sampled on “You Wouldn’t Understand” and Nas also mentions another old school legend on “Loco-Motive” when he says, “In my truck play the greatest adventures of Slick Rick /Buggin on how his imagination was so sick.” On one of the final tracks she recorded, Amy Winehouse assists Nas on “Cherry Wine” and channels her inner Ella Fitzgerald through scat singing towards the end of the Salaam Remi track that will have you thinking of scenes from Spike Lee’s landmark jazz film, “Mo’ Betta Blues.”
If you ever wondered how it would sound if Nas rapped over classic Mary J. Blige beats look no further than “Reach Out” where he does this over a merger between the “You Remind Me” remix beat and “I Love You.” Don’t be confused by Miguel’s MC flow on the seasonal anthem, “Summer on Smash.” That’s actually his voice and not Pharrell’s on the Swizz Beatz produced banger.
While Nas reveals the trials of fatherhood in “Daughters,” it’s “Bye Baby” that answers all the Kelis questions regarding their split. Saalam Remi eloquently samples Guy’s “Goodbye Love” to the point where you think the group’s lead singer, Aaron Hall, was actually singing in the studio next to Nas when it was recorded.
There are way too many lyrical highlights on the LP to point out but Nas has definitely raised the bar for rhymes and answers the questions fans have about whether rap veterans with a huge archive of recordings can create something new and necessary. Nas addresses haters on “Stay” when he states, ”Spotlight on me/I still look 20/Still get money/Ladykiller pushing a Bentley/Maybe niggaz can see too much of their failures/Through a nigga who realer/I don’t like you near, bro/But I need you to stay.” As Large Professor plays the role of lead conductor on “Loco-Motive” Nas adds, “Integrity in tact reppin’ hard/They askin how he disappear and reappear back on top, saying Nas must have naked pictures of God…” For Nas it doesn’t appear that “Life is Good.” It is great!
HATE IT: Besides shouting out the title of his upcoming album, “God Forgives I Don’t” Rick Ross doesn’t provide a memorable verse on “Accident Murderers” even though he’s had great chemistry with Nas in the past. Fans of the album will be indecisive when it comes to purchasing the $9.99 album vs. paying $4 more for three additional bonus tracks that are a continuation of “Life.” The Don Dada Remix of “The Don” is only available on the Japan release of the album and is extremely hard to find.