Hip Hop Is Dead
The title Hip Hop Is Dead probably takes one extreme or the other with most of you. Either you say "yeah no shit it's been dead for a decade," or you went on a tirade about how Hip Hop hasn't lost a step; you just need to look in the right places. The reality probably falls somewhere in between the two, as there is certainly plenty of great Hip Hop on the independent scene and still some available from major labels these days. But for Nasir Jones, an impressionable teenager during the early golden era and a cornerstone of the latter golden years who probably doesn't stay up the MF DOOM's and Brother Ali's of the world, it's pretty justifiable for him to toe tag the genre of which he has seen the apex.
Provocative title aside, LP number eight from God's Son is likely his most anticipated since his untouchable debut 12 years ago. After engaging in Hip Hop's battle with Jay-Z in 2001, he and the Jiggaman set an example for the rest of usually childish Hip Hop community by making peace last year. The surprises continued several months later when Nas left Columbia for Def Jam, the label that Jay-Z presided over. Some saw it as Nas conceding defeat, others only saw it as a means to two of Hip Hop's all-time greats to finally rhyme side-by-side. Either way, there is no true Hip Hop head that isn't curious as to how this album turns out.
There are really only two things that have ever hindered Nas' career: his beat selection and his extreme shifts in content. But when he does what he does, his talents are baffling. Put him in a room with a mic, and only a few emcees in Hip Hop's 30 some years can be mentioned in the same breath. Fortunately with the likes of Dr. Dre, Scott Storch, Will.i.am, Kanye West, and L.E.S. on the boards, production isn't much of a concern. The album kicks off with the sinister "Money over Bullshit," and Nas gets it warmed up talking some smack. Aside from the next song and sole weak track on the LP ("You Can't Kill Me"), the album never looks back.
The Scott Storch-produced "Carry On Tradition" is one of the many jewels on Hip Hop Is Dead; "Hip hop been dead, we the reason it died/wasn't Sylvia's fault or cause emcee's skills are lost/its cause we can't see ourselves to boss/deep rooted through slavery, self hatred/the Jewish stick together, friends in high places/we on some low level shit/we don't want niggas to ever win." Nas holds court here and caps the song off with just a ruthless second verse tearing nameless emcees to bits; "do anything to get in the game/mixtapes you spit hate against bosses/hungry fucks are marvelous/you should be tossed in a pit full of unfortunate vocalists/niggas I coulda wrote ya shit/I had off time, was bored with this/I coulda made my double LP just from sampling different parts of Nautilus/still came 5 on the charts with zero audience/the lane was open and y'all was droppin that garbage shit/y'all got awards for ya bricks, it got good to ya/ya started telling the bigger dogs to call it quits." "Where Are They Now" is a telling song for the album, not just for the vicious break beat but for Nas waxing nostalgic about lost emcees. Given the concept of the album, a fairly reflective theme underlies the entire LP. "Can't Forget About You" follows a similar, albeit more personal subject. The melancholy vibe is just as effective backed by an ill will.i.am production. The smoked out "Blunt Ashes" (produced by Chris Webber - yes, THAT Chris Webber) , is the most moving of these wistful joints - one of those songs where Nas' poetic brilliance leaves you shaking your head.
Getting back to will.i.am for a second, the stupid-talented producer steals the show with the album's title track and lead single. While I do think that using the same recognizable Iron Butterfly sample on back to back album singles is retarded, but you just can't front how incredibly will.i.am flipped it (putting "Thief's Theme" to shame). The track reaches a goose bump inducing climaxing in the final verse that starts over little more than chants of "Hip Hop" before the beat comes back in piece by piece. And of course, Nas slays it from front to back. The albums other moment liable to give you chills is when L.E.S.'s royal horns blast, sounding like he is introducing a king, or well, two of them...yeah we can feel the magic baby. Hip Hop's most legendary rivalry has finally culminated in "Black Republican," the Hip Hop equivalent to a wet dream. Who has the better verse? Too close to call if you ask me.
Jay-Z isn't the only superstar Nas brings with him, he is joined by a few other marquee names that all rise up to the occasion. Game returns the favor for "Hustlers" and turns in another great performance alongside Nas, ironically rocking over a sinister Dr. Dre beat. Snoop also lends some California love for the butter-smooth, Scott Storch-produced "Play on Playa." "Still Dreaming" finds Kanye West lending both a beat and a rhyme, though his great verse (and beat) takes a back seat to Nas' usual wise perspective. "Not Going Back" finds Nas imparting some more of that wisdom; "first class flights, diamonds in ya crucifix's/all those things, you still ain't really doin' shit kid/cause in reality, I learned my salary/the way I flaunted it then would now embarrass me."
Much like Jay's recent effort, Hip Hop Is Dead is an album for grown folks. Nas isn't like some of these other men who are thirty plus still acting like - and rapping to - kids. Mr. Jones is penning verses from the perspective of a man with years in the game: "a vet, a general, don't step where I walked in/make your own path, be a legend in your skin/make your own cash, don't stress what I'm flossin/don't expect more when you put in less work then all them." Just 16 when he turned the Hip Hop world on its ear on "Live At The BBQ," Nas' life has unfolded on wax over the last 15 years and we've all been here listening.
Illmatic remains not just the standard bearer for Nas' career, but for Hip Hop in the last decade. So comparing this or any album to it doesn't make much sense as its pretty unlikely that we'll ever see an album as good. Nas has made some great albums between this and his debut, but It Was Written had Nas torn between himself and label pressures. Stillmatic, as good as it was, was overrated because it was just so exciting to have Nas return to form after the disaster that was Nastradamus. God's Son was lyrically brilliant but had some lulls on the production tip (and no, The Lost Tapes doesn't count as it wasn't a real album). Make no mistake about it, this is the best body of work Nasir Jones has made in 12 years. The title may be an obituary, but the album proves that Hip Hop is alive and well when it's in the right hands. So here is Nas - never on schedule, but always on time.