The album’s title is a bold, yet obvious statement. Obviously hip-hop’s decline has been thoroughly discussed by real music listeners for years now. Nas, though, is the first commercially successful artist to dedicate an entire album to describing the death of the genre. That in itself is an incredibly bold statement, especially when considering current emcees’ aversions to anything that may hurt cd sales, create beef with current “artists” whom thrive in this post-mortem state of hop, or associate themselves with the taboo “hater” label.
The content is also true to the opening statement: bold, yet obvious. Nas’ nostalgic venture into yesteryear’s hop is refreshing. Hop fans have been pining for an emcee having the lyrical guts to address the fact that the music-leg of hip-hop is dead.
But the songs themselves are not scripted in the ultra subliminal, ultra creative way that Nas fans crave. Possibly, Nas’ greatest talent is his ability to metaphorically script a situation in extreme detail, but at the same time do it so subtly that only later will the listener realize what the song is actually describing. A prime example of this would be “I Gave You Power,” off his second album It Was Written. Here he takes the listener on a creative journey within a classic street tale through the eyes of a pistol. Amazing. But, upon further observation you realize that the story itself is a metaphor for Nas’ stake in the industry, one where his emcee-style, as in the case of the gun, is being used by every other rapper out to slay other rappers in an attempt to gain credibility, financial success, and a feeling a power. That’s beyond amazing, but quite typical for Nas. More recently his “Disciple” off the album Street’s Disciple is a tribute to hop great Kool G Rap. Here he dispels the notion that hearing Jay-Z rap is like “hearing G Rap in his prime”, spitting in the cadence, tone, and lyrical style of G, producing one of the most brutal battle raps in recent history. However, the themes of Hip Hop Is Dead are obvious and presented in a tone so blatant that his true artistry is often MIA. There is nothing for the fan to uncover or decode on this album, save for “Who Killed It”, which is an incredible song, presented in a “who done it” murder mystery investigation scenario, with a 1920’s tone and setting. The song is nuts.
Hip Hop Is Dead is a blatant commercial attempt, saved only by the fact that the album’s theme is socially responsible and necessary. The album features several high-profile, super-producers (Scott Storch, Kanye, Dre) but the listener is seldom exposed to high quality in both production and lyrical display simultaneously. “Carry on Tradition” is an address to today’s rapper. Here, Nas demands that homage be paid to the founders of hop, ownership be taken of the music, and for rappers to return to the fundamentals of hop, specifically emceeing. But the song’s Scott Storch-produced track is uninspired at best, and Nas’ lyrical display is average (not to mention the inclusion of an outdated and lame hook), leaving the song’s theme as its only highlights. He collaborates on “Still Dreaming” with Kanye West. Kanye’s track is “good” but the lyrical display by both is simplistic, and feels rushed and forced. “Black Republicans” features two of hop’s greatest emcees – Nas and Jay-Z – which in itself is refreshing. (Honestly, when was the last time you heard two great emcees on a track?) L.E.S does a thorough job on production, and the contrast of the two emcees (Jay as the republican, Nas as the militant) is accurate and creative. However, the lyrical display does not live up to the billing. It’s good, but not great and leaves the listener wondering what could have been, in the wake of the most anticipated emcee collaboration in close to a decade.
Hip Hop Is Dead is a socially responsible, call to action that real music fans have been demanding. Simultaneously, it is a mediocre display of artistry by arguable the greatest hip hop artist.