Nas: Hip Hop Is Dead

Posted in music, reviews at 1:29 am by danvk

nashiphopdead.jpg I recently noticed that a friend was intrigued by Hip Hop Is Dead, so I figured I should write a little about it. As the two readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of Nas, or at least of Illmatic. And that’s a distinction that no small number of people make. Nas’s predicament reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan’s. No new album of Dylan’s will ever be called “his best ever”. It would be absurd. The highest praise his new albums can be given is “the best since Blood on the Tracks“. High praise, but I imagine that kind of prior success would weigh heavy on an artist. That being said, this is his best album since Illmatic.

People often talk of a Golden Age of Hip-Hop from around 1988 to 1993. The golden age is characterized by rapidly-developing new genres, fabulous albums, and social consciousness. In my mind, Illmatic represents the culmination of it. After the golden age, rappers started to fall more and more in love with their money and egos, which led to ridiculousness like the Tupac/Biggie and Nas/Jay-Z rivalries. In Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas shows everyone how far hip hop culture has fallen since the good old days.

Nas makes it crystal clear how much he loves that culture, and how in tune he is with its history. On “Carry on Tradition,” he calls out the younger rappers for not knowing their roots: “I got an exam, let’s see if y’all pass it / Let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest”.

Having just watched The Freshest Kids, I was particularly struck by the line “Can’t forget about the old school / Bam, Caz, Mele Mel, Flash / Rock Steady spinning on they backs” in “Can’t Forget about You” (video). That track was produced by Will.I.Am, who has a special place in my heart because he came to the Googleplex. He also produced the title track, which has one of the most ludicrous choruses I’ve ever heard:

If hip hop should die before I wake
I’ll put an extended clip inside of my AK
Roll to every station, murder the DJ
Roll to every station, murder the DJ

No bones about it, Nas is passionate about his Hip Hop. Another stand-out track is “Still Dreaming”, which is his collaboration with Kanye West. Its mood is more laid back and reserved than the rest of the tracks, but it’s a welcome break.

Funniest moment on the album: in the few seconds between “Who Killed It?” and Jay-Z’s “Black Republican”, you can hear a computer voice saying “Hip Hop is so fucking d…”. And then Jay-Z comes on with a symphony in the background. I can’t help but think that this is a great jab at Jay-Z. Even though they’ve “reconciled their differences,” Jay must still represent everything dead about Hip Hop to Nas.

In the end, Hip Hop Is Dead is less a condemnation of contemporary Hip Hop and more a celebration of its history. Perhaps it will open people’s eyes to that rich history.

1 Comment

  1. Leenie said,

    March 12, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    I have to admit I’m a bit surprised you’re taking on a rap album to review. Yeah, people often accuse Jay-Z / Beyonce of being rap royalty without depth, and I think you’re right that Nas has taken on the role of Jay-Z’s doppelganger, reminding him of hip-hop’s real soul, and Z’s failures to bring that soul into his records. Your review makes me think I should listen to more of both.