Album: Hip Hop is Dead
Comments: Nas has always been a polarizing figure in the hip hop world. To some, he is nothing more than another rapper with pretty good skill who has been living off of one phenomenal debut (the classic “Illmatic”) for his entire career. To others, Nas is a thinking man’s gangster who is able to blend street life drug rap with higher thought; he is able to appeal to fans of crime rap and fans of “smart” rap. His is a career that has always been draped in dramatics and controversy; ever since his debut, he has had beef with everyone from (most famously) Jay-Z to (inexplicably) Young Jeezy. On his newest release, Nas is back again, and bringing more controversy with him. This time, he’s letting us all know that Hip Hop is dead, gone, and not coming back any time soon.
This album title alone has got people up in arms. Some agree with Nas; they say that true hip hop, a genre built from oppression and hardship that reflects such things, is a lost art that is no longer being respected. Others argue that this is bullshit. Look at all the rap music on the radio or on TV or in the record stores, they argue. How can Nas say that Hip Hop is dead when now, after 30 years of being ignored by pop culture, it is at its most prominent? I’m only here to review an album, not defend either side. But I will say that those of you turned off from this album by its name should get a clue and at least listen to the man’s argument. Because while it’s not always clear, and it’s not a classic, it’s still a fine hip hop record.
It doesn’t really start out fine though. The first five tracks have Nas in battle form. He calls out everyone and everything on the first five tracks, from people trying to take his money, to people trying to kill him, to people making bad music, to people who, um, can’t quote Kool Keith at will. These songs really start the album off with a stumble and a thud, as each of these tracks offer a few moments of tight lyrics buried under third rate west coast beats and verbal diarrhea. The best beat among these first five has got to be the Iron Butterfly sample found in the first single and titular track “Hip Hop is Dead”. This song is by far the best of the first five, but it deserves some better lyrics and a more accomplished third verse, especially because of how good the sampling and beat are.
Even if these first five are not the best, they are forgivable missteps for two reasons. The first is that each song has some redeeming value to it, so none of them are complete throw-away. The second reason is that for the six songs on the album, Nas moves away from his battle mode, focusing less on others and more on self-examination. “Black Republican” features a guest verse from Jay-Z, officially squashing any and all beef. A strong, if brief performance from both MCs. Jay sounds more alive on this track next to a former enemy than he did on his entire album from 06, giving me the idea that maybe Jay just plays to the level of his competition. “Who Killed It?” has Nas in full on 40’s PI mode, telling a crime story revolving around a good looking woman that men will kill for. It’s one of the best tracks on the CD, and is the most creative on Nas has done since “One Mic”. “Not Going Back”, “Still Dreaming”, “Hold Down the Block” and the unfortunately titled “Blunt Ash” make up the core of this CD. All are tracks in which Nas looks at himself and his own past mistakes to make commentary on the current state of the rap game. Two songs in particular have some really head turning production in this section of the album; “Still Dreaming” is proof that Kanye West still hasn’t fallen off, and “Blunt Ash” has a soupy kind of haze-production you would expect from someone like Madlib.
Despite a rather long track listing that could have used some more editing, and a few early stumbles, Nas continues to startle that line of crack music and thought music, keeping a toe on both sides. He is one of the giants of rap, regardless of how much commercial or critical acclaim he gets. At the same time, he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he may spend his career trying to top a genius debut. As it stands, “Hip Hop is Dead” is a good addition to a good career from one of hip hops biggest enigmas.
So is Hip Hop dead? That’s for you to listen, and for you to decide.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Key Tracks: “Who Killed It?” “Blunt Ash” “Not Going Back”
Worth The Money: It’s a stretch, but I’d say yes.