Whether it’s Ice T making a documentary or Toure deciding that hip hop has failed in what he presumes to be its purpose, saving America, it feels that 2012 has brought a new peak to the ever-present pile of conservative complaints about rap music. That’s not conservative in the political sense, just in the sense of rejecting the new. It makes for an interesting context for Nas, the patron saint of anti-Lil Wayne YouTube commentators, to release a new album in, and it eats at the songs themselves, in a way. Since Illmatic, his career has been characterised by albums that swing between acceptance or rejection of the idea that he had it right, for all time, in 1994.
Life Is Good, rather than taking a solid stance, seems to toy with this unique position. No Introduction, which is decidedly an introduction, is the kind of cinematic, glitzy slow-rock that would certainly draw ire if it was, say, Drake, taking in relationship troubles and ret-con Biggie interactions. But then on the very next track, Loco-Motive, he unleashes something genuinely special over a gangsta rap No ID beat, giving the people what they want without too much compromise to nostalgia. But then, after the beat cuts off, he dedicates it to his “trapped in the Nineties n****s”.
There is a level of control here, a version of Nas as legend-in-action rather than legend-by-reputation. His first album, of course, had no famous guest appearances. Some of his more recent albums flag under the weight of unnecessary hook-providers and more current rappers. On Accident Murderers, Rick Ross raps for his life, and it sounds like classic music rather than a favour. Swizz Beats overdoes it on his turn, as usual, but it’s forgivable because Nas, after nearly two decades of surfing on the benefit of the doubt, is on top of his game. The reason Life Is Good comes across as a genuinely excellent album is that it’s a positive example, rather than a complaint, in this misguided ‘hip hop is dead’ argument.