With the title of his latest album, Nas has created a forum of debate regarding the current state of hip hop. Even with so much misunderstanding over an album with such a controversial title, no one could comprehend what Nasir Jones was bringing to the table. With incredible focus reminiscent of his earlier years, Hip Hop Is Dead does more than claim the end of the genre – it profoundly examines hip hop’s life.
The album is a personal account of not only his long-standing journey in hip hop, but other notable black artists who made stands in different popular mediums years before him. But the title only tells part of the story. The album’s more potent message seems to be Nas’s will to keep hip hop alive. Every song reflects the timeless New York-style Nas controls with the knowledge and educational tactics he possesses.
Apparently, Nas has a deep passion for Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” because he flows over a sample of the song for the second time in the track “Hip Hop Is Dead,” produced by will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. Though will.i.am doesn’t seem to stray far from the original beat for “Thief’s Theme,” he does provide a raspy cry for hip hop’s death – sounding much like an old man wailing over lost love.
By employing a mock Humphrey Bogart/old-time gangster voice, Nas (from the perspective of a Dick Tracy-style detective) personifies hip hop as a girl on “Who Killed It?” She becomes his interest when Pretty Mike stabs Two-Face Al over her at a club. The old-school New York style of quick drums and claps adds a real downtown style to the caper. The story climaxes when he meets up with the mystery lady. She tells him how she began with the rhymes of slaves and kept moving until she fell in love with DJ Kool Herc. But before Nas can get any further with her, she dies on the floor saying “If you really love me, I’ll come back alive.”
Production is nothing short of eclectic with Nas calling on beatmakers from near and far. Past the title track, will.i.am also creates a remarkable sample from the Nat King Cole masterpiece “Unforgettable” on “Can’t Forget About U.” The soft taps of piano keys behind turntable scratching, ringing bells and heavy drums powerfully accent Nas’s rhymes and Chrisette Michele’s vocals. Nas also uses producer L.E.S., who he has consistently worked with since his first album “Illmatic.” The guestlist goes on as he uses beats from Kanye West, Salaam Remi and, oddly enough, Philadelphia 76ers Forward and University alumn Chris Webber.
The album’s collaborations are exceptional and unique, most notably the appearance of West Coast Doggfather Snoop Dog, on a beat by Scott Storch. Nas further explores California style with the Game and Marsha (of Floetry) on an authentic West Coast beat by Dr. Dre for “Hustlers.” After the stunning truce called over the summer followed by Nas signing to Def Jam, he and Def Jam President/CEO, Jay-Z, lyrically unite on “Black Republican.” The duo’s tag team effort resounds the New York-style with its chorus: “Can’t clean my act up for good / Too much thug in ’em / Probably end up back in the hood / I’m like fuck it then.”
The song “Hope” provides an insightful ending to an unreal album with Nas rapping about trying to get into New York hip hop, ending with “If you’re asking ‘why is hip hop dead?’ / It’s a pretty good chance you’re the reason it died.” Chrisette Michele’s sultry and soulful voice is spellbinding, fading out with a hypnotic chant “Live hip hop, live.” In the end hip hop really isn’t dead. According to Nas, hip hop is forever.
Rating: 4 out 5 stars
Hip Hop Is Dead