Hip Hop Is Dead
f you view his albums as a series of freeze frames, Nas is one of hip-hop's most slippery and fascinating characters: post-Native Tongues ghetto poet, flossy sample appropriator, acolyte of the super-producers, one man army, shitty posse album curator, introspective humanist. If you take a step back, though, it becomes obvious that Nas' career arc is an EKG of New York hip-hop—he's just incredibly canny about anticipating trends and acting on them before they're played out. If you've paid any attention to hip-hop in 2006, you'll realize how fitting it is that his newest album is named Hip Hop Is Dead. Coming at it with both barrels, Nas caps a year of NYC-based disappointments with quite possibly the most crushing one yet.
But how much of a disappointment is it really? We might as well just officially name Illmatic the best hip-hop album ever: how else can Nas release album after album that refuses to be his second best and yet, we expect something different based on 40 minutes of music that were made over a decade ago? The problem here isn't that he didn't make another Illmatic, but that he didn't make a Hip Hop Is Dead either. Nas has never been hesitant to take the gloves off, and when he does, there's an intriguing instability that The Game has obviously learned a lot from. But those moments are rare and surprisingly ineffective here.
He begins "Carry On Tradition" with the line "some rappers be them crackheads…n***a's your grandfather's age" and you think, "alright…let's get down to business," but you still have to get through one of the many failed hooks on the album for gems like: "We used to be a ghetto secret / Can't make my mind up if I want that / Or the whole world to peep it." "Where Are They Now" copiously drops names and adds little insight (You wanna know where Coolio is? Find a celebrity softball game.), playing out like a circuitous All Music Guide search set to a classic geetar screech—try to imagine an even lamer version of Edan's "Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme." That's a career apex compared to "Who Killed It?", a murder mystery of you-know-what which finds the heretofore unimaginable nexus between Dick Tracy and "Grindin'."
Aside from that, Hip Hop Is Dead becomes the typical mixed bag of Nas that everyone should expect, but will seldom admit to. It's never intolerable, with the exception of "You Can't Kill Me," which starts out with his most revolting image yet ("honey spreaded that asshole like a widemouth bass") and devolves into a crime narrative so half-assed, you have to pinch yourself to remember that you're listening to one of the greatest MC's of all time. The beats don’t help: Nas wastes "Still Dreamin'"'s surgical rhymes on the fluffiest track Kanye's done since "Late."
Then again, you could make the argument that Hip Hop Is Dead was solely meant to be a legitimate conduit for "Black Republican," whose epic largesse and brutal introspection of nouveau riche hypocrisy honestly sounds like it was left off Kingdom Come as a favor. But even so, it's rather telling that "Black Republican," "Still Dreamin'," and "Hustlers," featuring an on-fire The Game, are the highlights; a lot of times, it's a relief to hear a voice other than Nas'.
If Hip Hop Is Dead doesn't exactly revive the artform, it certainly serves as a great wake-up call during the usually sleepy Christmas release schedule. 2006 may have been the weakest year in hip-hop history, but it wasn't from a lack of activity; what popular rapper didn't release a studio album this year? You're either gonna have to find new favorite rappers or new ways to enjoy them, because only 50 Cent has a 2007 release date that's even remotely discernible and Ghostface and Clipse probably won't be around to save your ass. The question becomes one familiar to anyone who's spent the last four or five years of their life partying their ass off instead of feeding their brain and yet somehow made it out alive: "What the fuck do we do now?"