Don't let the title fool you, Nas' Hip-Hop Is Dead is a potent pack of gritty songs.
Back to Basics
Nas loves hip-hop, he just hates the people in it. Ever since the 33 year old rapper unveiled his controversial album title Hip-Hop Is Dead in May, a long list of southern rappers--from Young Jeezy and T.I. to Ludacris and Pimp C--have been hissing and fussing over Nas' statement. Little do they realize that that's exactly what Nas wanted. By declaring hip-hop dead, Nas has now forced purists to appraise the musical direction of today's rap and subsequently advocate the revitalization of creativity.
A question much bigger than the one Nas posed on his album title is this: Will Nas fans ever let go off their desire to witness another Illmatic? Here's a bitter-sweet pill for Nas' loyalists: There'll never be another Illmatic. Nas is not willing or even equipped to undertake that task. End of discussion.
Sprawling and Ambitious
The album starts off big and feverish with the chest-thumping "Money Over Bulls**t," in which he vows to "put a barrel in the Capo mouth/Till his scalp come out." For those who don't have time to research every true school rap icon, Nas does it for you on "Where Are They Now," functioning as a search engine, briefly indexing the likes of Busy Bee, Roxanne Shante, Special Ed, and Group Home. But it's not all lovey-dovey for the old school. On "Carry on Tradition," Nas indicts grumpy graybeard rappers, "Some rap pioneers be them crackheads / When they speak you see missing teeth.../N***as your grandfather age / They pants still hanging down their legs talking 'bout they ain't paid / And they hate you cause they say you ain't paid dues."
Nas, who traditionally eschews copious collaborations, (AZ was Illmatic's lone guest MC, while Streets Disciple had four guest rappers that actually rapped out of 23 songs) opts for five collaborations on Hip-Hop Is Dead. Nas teams up with hip-hop's most esteemed bald man, Jay-Z, on "Black Republican." The song delivers just the right amount of musical virtuosity and nothing more. Both Kanye West's tracks "Still Dreaming" and "Let There Be Light" reaffirm the synergy the two initiated on "We Major." Snoop Dogg even finds his mojo on "Play on Playa," Scott Storch's interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance." "Hustlers" with The Game and Marsha Ambrosius features enough gun blasts to scare neighbors into their panic room. That's just the good news.
Nas Saves the Day
Dismantling the apparatus of mediocrity is tough, but it wouldn't be so challenging if Nas had managed to ditch his poor taste in beats. Will.i.am wrestles with the right chords as Nas' storytelling impulses wrestle with his hesitation to spell everything out on "Who Killed It." "Blunt Ashes" belies his surprisingly silly sense of humor but suffers from Chris Webber's washed-out funeral keys. Tight production is insufficient but lyrical consistency abounds.
The Bottom Line on Hip-Hop Is Dead
Nas' renewed quest for lyrical finesse steers the gritty, gripping batch of songs on Hip-Hop Is Dead, and gives yield to his best effort in five years.
Hip-hop is dead, sure. Thankfully, Nas is a liar.Outstanding Tracks
- "Money Over Bulls**t"
- "Where Are They Now"
- "Let There Be Light"