In the Dow Jones of hip-hop, Nasir Jones is a volatile stock: the boy king of Queensbridge, eloquent author of rap's unarguable, eager bait taker, subprime beef grinder and kerosene-soaked torchbearer, his exothermic legacy going up in a puff of rehash smoke. But no — this is a dozen years ago, and Y2K isn't the end of Nas' world after all. It's only the close of the first act, and there are two (or three, or four) falls and rises still to come.
Life is Good (Def Jam), the 11th album by the legendary New York MC, says everything about where his valuation stands. With time-capsule boom-bap production values and a head-down vocal approach, it's his best work this millennium — maybe his best since 1994 debut Illmatic, considered by no one to be outside the five greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Though continually striking fool's platinum after followup It Was Written, Nas wasted a decade chasing his own shadow, his limitless talent retreating further inside ornate, empty temples of self worship (I Am..., Nastradamus). Stillmatic, an otherwise stale solo reunion, introduced a new target: an invigorating (however insincere) war of words with Jay-Z, the venomous "Ether" memorably reducing his crosstown G.O.A.T. rival to a "Tae Bo ho" ("You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan/ I still whip your ass, you 36 in a karate class").
That didn't happen. Instead, Nas signed with him in 2006, joining Def Jam for four LPs, saving the best for last. A clean break from the recent past, Life is Good digs deeper. "Loco-Motive," a Large Professor class in session, extols Illmatic the right way, first with the circular chug of an elevated train, then with internal rhymes worthy of "Halftime." "Accident Murderers" hits inner-city violence harder than Bill O'Reilly could ever blather, and "Nasty" usurps Pharoahe Monch with filthy samples and a hell-raising to-do list: "I come from the Wheel of Ezekiel/ To pop $1,000 bottles of scotch, smoke pot and heal the people." Amen? — Noah Bonaparte Pais