The cover of Nas’s “Life Is Good,” the Queens legend’s 10th studio album, is a shot of the 38-year-old rapper sitting on a leather banquette, and in his lap is the green dress that his ex-wife, singer Kelis, wore at their 2005 wedding.
Based on that image, and a recent run of not-great luck (divorce, IRS issues) one might think “Life Is Good” is tongue-in-cheek title for a collection of bitter tracks, but it’s actually earnestly upbeat. On the album, Nas expresses nostalgia for the 1990s without pitifully longing for his heyday, and he unpacks some of his rich guy issues while also acknowledging that he has a pretty extraordinary life — a trick many seasoned MCs in his age bracket have failed to pull off.
The Salaam Remi-produced “Bye Baby,” which samples Guy’s New Jack-era slow jam “Goodbye Love,” finds Nas rhyming in great detail about his relationship with Kelis. But instead of saying good riddance to her, he maintains that he’s happy to have taken a chance on love.
On “A Queens Story,” Nas dusts off the detailed street reportage that earned 1994’s “Illmatic” a spot in the hip-hop canon. Lines about “cheeba in yellow sacks, dope sold in laundromats,” are likely reconstructed from hazy, decades-old memories, but they’re delivered with the urgency of live accounts. Less important than the tales themselves is being alive to recount them: “Put your glass high if you made it out the stash spot / And here to tell the story and celebrate the glory,” he rhymes.
The ever-morphing rapper talks about parental anxieties on “Daughters,” Queens hip-hop of yore on “The Don,” and finding true love on the much-talked about “Cherry Wine,” a collaboration with the late Amy Winehouse. Although Nas laments the work of finding a soul mate on the track, as the gone-too-soon singer backs him up with a soulful hook, the unspoken message is that Nas is just glad he’s still around to continue his search.
“A Queens Story,” “Cherry Wine”