Production matters. Ask A$AP Rocky if Clams Casino was important to LiveLoveA$AP. Ask Andre 3000 and Big Boi if Organized Noize was a big factor in developing their sound. Why do you think old school groups like Boogie Down Productions, Eric B & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, UGK, NWA, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul’s first three albums, Digable Planets, etc., consisted of a collective/duo of MCs and DJs?
Commercial gangsta rap shunned this concept a bit come the mid-`90s, but even Nas fretted over production while trying to follow-up what is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time (which should be considered an uncanny feat considering five different producers were credited between Illmatic‘s 10 tracks). Originally Nas was set on having Marley Marl produce the entire record, someone he looked up to and called an “inventor.” While logistics squashed this idea before they got too far and the Trackmasters were brought in to do most of the DJing, it’s clear that Nas knew what kind of sound he wanted and was willing to go after the producers that could make that happen. It feels like it’s been a long time since that’s been the case with Nas, and Life is Good is no different.
The production is all over the place. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means this record was made in the post-shuffle era. There’s the grimy, yet full, “Loco-Motive,” the New Edition-sampling, remastered boom-bap of “Reach Out,” the Kanye-esqe “Accident Murderers,” the concert symphony backing Nas as he discusses the plight of street life in Queens on “A Queens Story,” and those are just the good cuts.
While the record aims for bold sounds throughout, it sometimes overshoots this goal and ends up a bit overwrought. There’s the central American club-banger production in “The Don,” the ill-fitting grandeur of the opening track, “No Introduction,” and Swizz Beats’ commercial catch-all contribution, “Summer on Smash,” among several others. Each track carries a distinct, vibrant sound, which could be seen as a feat in itself, but since there’s such a disconnect from track to track, the overall effect is of a pop hip-hop record that’s a little lighter on big hooks. Thus, Nas demands your attention. And he proves he’s still worth it, you just have to fight through the bombast to witness it.
This is the redeeming quality of the record — that liminal space Nas so effectively strikes between the authentic street rapper he used to be and the comfortable veteran that he remains just edgy enough to stave off. Nas’ last record, Untitled, was surprisingly cohesive and impressive overall, as was the pop feel of his Def Jam debut, Hip Hop is Dead. Both were solid releases that provided ample backdrops for letting that precarious identity do its thing. But on Life is Good, the scattershot production leaves you wondering where the record is going next — that is, when you’re not preoccupied, marveling at Nas’ 38-year-old rapping chops.