Like most pop music, hip-hop is no country for old men. The genre has long favored the bluster and ambition of twentysomethings over the ruminations of the middle-aged. So it's not entirely surprising to hear Nas open his latest album like the crank at the bar still claiming he's got it. "I'm pushing 40/She's only 21," he states, with characteristic braggadocio. What is surprising is the punchline that comes right after: "Don't applaud me/I'm exhausted, G."
On paper, it'd seem that Nas has plenty of reason to be tired. It's been four years since the release of Untitled, the last in a series of spotty solo albums, and it's been two years since his highly publicized divorce from singer Kelis (that's her wedding dress Nas clutches on the album cover). But despite claims of exhaustion, Nas sounds inspired on Life Is Good, a tight collection of tracks that delve into just about every era of the Queensbridge rapper's career, from the gritty East Coast reportage of the mid-'90s to the mafioso grandeur that came later. On "A Queens Story," a beautiful blend of Gershwin strings and Stubblefield drums, Nas pays tribute to hip-hop's most neglected borough, name-checking the rappers and producers who once inspired him. Elsewhere, like on the nostalgic "Back When" and "Loco-Motive Story," producers No I.D. and Salaam Remi remind us that all Nas ever really needs behind him is a crisp breakbeat to showcase his talent.
A good chunk of Life Is Good catalogs the trophies of, well, the good life: the Porsches, Beemers, and Bugattis, the thousand-dollar bottles of booze, and arsenals of semiautomatics. But all that grandstanding can't cover up the sense of pain and regret that courses through the album's best songs. On "Cherry Wine," Nas trades verses with the late Amy Winehouse in an allusive, star-crossed-lovers narrative, and on "Bye Baby," the album's closer, he takes us through the bittersweet tale of his failed marriage, from the altar to the counseling sessions to the lawyers' offices that finalized the separation.
Nas has called Life Is Good his version of Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye's strange and mesmerizing 1978 masterpiece that chronicled his messy divorce from Anna Gordy. But the albums share more in common than the theme of a recent breakup. Like Nas, Gaye was pushing 40 when he recorded his album; he'd cemented his position as one of R&B's greatest, and yet, he never sounded more anguished about where all that fame was leading him. There's something similar going on throughout Life Is Good; the more we hear Nas repeat that titular refrain, the less convincing he sounds.
Ultimately, what makes Life Is Good stand out is what also made his celebrated debut, Illmatic, so compelling. There's a sense of narrative unity here, a wide-angle look of the artist as a grown man. And like that debut, it reminds us that there's still a place in hip-hop for the album as a form. As it turns out, there's a place for the middle-aged too.