Given that the cover of Life Is Good pictures Nas alone, clutching his ex-wife’s wedding dress—apparently the only item she left behind after their ugly divorce—listeners could be forgiven for reading sarcasm into the title. The rapper’s 10th album really does find the Queens legend in a good place, though, taking stock of his accomplishments and giving thanks for how far he’s come since his days as a hungry kid living on free school lunches and small crimes. And if his verses are to be believed, whatever bitterness his divorce left him with has since passed. He opens the album with a sincere dedication to his ex-wife and fellow artist Kelis, and on the closer, “Bye Baby,” he frames their marriage as a valiant effort: “At least I can say I tried, plus enjoyed the ride / Plus we got our little boy, my little joy and pride.”
Nas doesn’t claim that life is perfect, though. As he nears middle age, he struggles to reconcile his growing distance from the streets—“I been rich longer than I been broke,” he confesses on “Loco-Motive”—and on “Daughters” he worries that his criminal past undermines his parental authority. He never oversells these concerns or plays them for false drama. They’re just minor anxieties, beautifully expressed in a plainspoken, thought-a-second flow that has relaxed with age. Nas rhymes so fluently that rap now feels like his first language. It’s easy to imagine him conducting all of his day-to-day conversations in verse, speaking in elaborate streams of internal rhyme and poetic wordplay as he orders a pizza or changes cell-phone providers.
But great verses have always come easy to Nas, even during the lowest hours of his up-and-down career. Unlike his overambitious, unevenly produced recent albums Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled, though, Life Is Good fits Nas with beats that are as thoughtful as his prose. Primary producers Salaam Remi and No I.D. stuff their tracks with callbacks to golden-age rap: boom-bap drums, lush keyboards, smooth saxophones, and the occasional Run-D.M.C. and MC Shan sample—tasteful accents that celebrate hip-hop’s glory years without fetishizing them. Only the thoroughly out-of-place Swizz Beatz club thumper “Summer On Smash” breaks the album’s beatific spell; otherwise, Life Is Good leaves Nas in his comfort zone, where the vital music of his youth proves a rousing platform for commenting on matters of middle age.