Hip-hop wasn’t mainstream when I was a kid. It wasn’t considered an art form. There weren’t really any rich rappers. I got into it because that’s what I loved. It’s what my neighborhood was. It’s what I was. And now, we’re finally going to see hip-hop get old. We’re going to see it have the same life span as jazz or B.B. King. When I’m 60 years old and LL Cool J has a show, I’ll be in the front row. I mean, who else am I going to go see?
— Nas, “Hip Hop Family Values” by Alex Abramovich, New York Times, 5 December, 2004.
In high school, I loved study aids, much to the dismay of my teachers. By “study aids”, I don’t mean hardcover books from the library catalog. I’m talking about books in the “Note” series, one of many collections of paperbacked jewels, packed with condensed wisdom. Some of them were black and yellow, some red and black, but no matter what the colors were, kids could always count on these little books to distill a gargantuan classic into its essential elements. Character analysis, plot summaries, themes, foreshadowing, symbolism, you name it. They’re the ones who told me Heathcliff was such a playa hater in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, that the color blue symbolized “illusion” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or that Shakespeare’s plays contained enough naughty innuendo to make pre-symbol Prince blush. Even better, these little books could teach you all this the night before the exam.
Things changed for me when these study aids began publishing summaries of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The way I saw it, an “autobiography”, even one that was “told to” someone else, was a testament to a man’s life, detailing his feelings and emotions, communicating his struggles and his passions. Malcolm X — controversial, strident, intriguing, multi-faceted — could hardly be captured in the book he helped Alex Haley produce, let alone a summary of that book. Instead of being aided by the study materials, I realized I had been missing the power and depth of the original works, and I was circumventing my opportunities to digest and internalize them. A “study aid” should be just that, an “aid” to clue you into the nuances of the works you’re experiencing.
Which, believe it or not, brings me to my enthusiasm for Hip Hop Is Dead, the 2006 release from Nasir “Nas” Jones, and why I am championing this album as more than a “rap record”, but as a work of art — an epic. Is it perfect? Well, no. Some of its concepts are jumbled; some of its execution could have been better. Considering the prior beef between Jay-Z and Nas (I call it “The Takeover vs. Ether”), the collaboration between them probably could have been more momentous. But those details don’t concern me.
See, Hip Hop Is Dead shouldn’t be dismissed as merely an ode to “golden age” hip-hop. Tupac already handled that in 1995 on Me Against the World‘s “Old School”. Hip Hop Is Dead is about the shared experience of hip-hop, the “were-you-there-too” moments. It’s about the way we’ve digested and internalized this strange, organic phenomenon we call “rap music”, the way it soothed us when we were upset, the way we heard a “dope” rhyme and couldn’t wait to say, “Yo, you got that new YZ? No? You gotta listen to YZ, man.” And, just so you know, there really was a rapper named YZ (pronounced “Why-Zee”). If we don’t want hip-hop to die, we’ve got to remember its origins (“[I]t all started from two turntables”, Nas says on “Carry On Tradition”). We, as rappers and rap fans, need to think seriously about what we want out of hip-hop and where we want this culture to go.
On her website, schoolteacher Sandra Effinger provides a useful definition of an epic. She was kind enough to let me quote it, as follows:
[An epic is] a long narrative poem on a great and serious subject, related in an elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race. The traditional epics were shaped by a literary artist from historical and legendary materials which had developed in the oral traditions of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare.
This definition reminds me of Nas and Hip Hop Is Dead. Let’s break it down:
1. “A long narrative poem” — that’s hip-hop’s general format.
2. “On a great and serious subject” — Hip-Hop Is Dead is premised upon the death of hip-hop as a rhetorical and cultural movement.
3. “Related in an elevated style” — Nas’s complex rhymes, and his heightened sense of urgency to sound good on this album, will qualify.
4. “Centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure” — Nas is the hero, known in hip-hop circles as, among other epithets, “God’s Son”. Additionally, Nas’s epic heroism can be traced back to his first hit, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”:
Hit the Earth like a comet invasion
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazin’
‘Cause in my physical, I can express through song
Delete stress like Motrin, then extend strong
I drank Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns in Hell
From the spliff that I lift and inhale, it ain’t hard to tell
5. “On whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation or the human race” — the fate of hip-hop is tied to the fate of a generation and, ultimately, to society as a whole.
I connected with Hip Hop Is Dead on a level beyond identifying which of the album’s beats are the tightest — I actually like them all, even the Chris Webber-produced “Blunt Ashes”. My connection went beyond the speculation of whether Nas could produce an album equal or superior to his 1994 classic Illmatic. Had we, as artists and music lovers, interacted differently with hip-hop, Nas may never have felt compelled to record Hip Hop Is Dead. To me, it’s tough to compare the best album he’s recorded (Illmatic) to the best album he never should’ve had to make (Hip Hop Is Dead).
Connecting with this album goes beyond the controversy surrounding the album title — you didn’t really think Nas believed hip-hop was dead, did you? What’s at stake here then? It’s about art and its potential to shape minds and change lives. The stakes are the direction of hip-hop itself, which will influence the direction of a people. As Nas says on the album closer, “Hope”:
Ain’t got nothin’ to do wit’ Old School, New School
Dirty South, West Coast, East Coast
This [is] about us
This [is] our thing, know what I’m sayin’
This came from the gut, from the blood, from the soul
Right here, man
This is our thing, man
This is deep, heady stuff, the business of legends, and through his “long narrative poem”, in 16 parts we like to call “songs”, Nas embarks on a journey that is partly hypothetical and partly historical, drawing upon the traditions of rap’s most revered emcees and their master works, all in an effort to rally us to preserve our culture. It’s not about going back; it’s about embracing ways to move forward.
Epics, like most stories, function through heroes. Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey trumpeted the adventures of warriors like Achilles and Ulysses (also called “Odysseus”). Hip Hop Is Dead predictably positions Nas as its central hero (after all, it’s his album).
Nas is the perfect artist to undertake a project with this theme. KRS-One, Chuck D, or Rakim might have been able to do it, but Nas sits uncomfortably on the cusp between “old school” and “new school”, old enough to remember our pioneers (“Before the BDP conflict with MC Shan”, he rhymed in ’94 on “Represent”) but young enough to come of age in the ’80s. He speaks to ’70s and ’80s babies as a peer, not a mentor.
Besides, few rappers have been saddled with as many expectations as Nas. He is an Atlas, saddled with being the “next big thing” before his debut even hit the airwaves. And when it did, it was a monster, viewed as the kind of mountaintop achievement that simultaneously pleases and plagues performers. Landmark albums put you in a box and, unfortunately, hip-hop isn’t quite as malleable as pop. Madonna is free to reinvent herself — indeed, she’s the Queen of reinvention — but rappers are not. Sure, you might see a name change (MC Hammer drops the “MC” then puts it back or Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs can morph into “P. Diddy” or “Diddy”), but it’s difficult to change directions, as MC Hammer found out when he experimented with a harder edge in the mid-90s or as Dr. Dre discovered in the aftermath of his “gangsta rap” persona.
Nas, though, has always been a writer. He’s proud of it, quite a unique thing in rap music, since rap lovers hold freestyling in high esteem. You get mad props if you can rhyme straight off the dome, as dramatized by Eminem’s movie 8 Mile. Yet, Nas refers to his writings with lines like:
I sip the Dom P, watchin’ Gandhi ’til I’m charged, then
Writin’ in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin
— “The World Is Yours”, Illmatic
And he’s been creative with his songwriting, challenging himself to explore a wide range of themes and to push the limits of the form. Consider “Rewind”, from Stillmatic (2001), a tune in which Nas narrates a story backwards, from end to beginning, like the video for Beyonce’s Me, Myself & I, starting with the bullet that ends a man’s life and reversing the action until we hear the beginning: an answering machine message ordering the hit. Equally intriguing is “Book of Rhymes”, from 2002’s God’s Son. Here, Nas builds a song around the unearthing of old journals he hadn’t seen in years. Psyched about his find, he rhymes from the unfamiliar pages of his notebooks. He rediscovers his thoughts, critiquing them right in front of us as he goes, ripping out the parts he thinks are weak. You even hear him turning the pages as he rhymes! In 2004, Nas wrote a rhyme called “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)”, in honor of one of rap’s supreme lyricists. The rhyme takes the form of a book, complete with a “dedication”, an “acknowledgement”, an “epilogue”, a “discography”, and a promise to produce another book about KRS-One.
In addition to Nas’s writing, he has demonstrated an understanding of, and affection for, hip-hop’s terrain. The title, Hip Hop Is Dead, embodies that understanding, as a throwback to De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead (1991), and De La’s critique of hardcore posturing. The overall context for hip-hop’s internal debates (what’s real versus what’s counterfeit) is informed by the work of KRS-One, who has devoted much of his long career to teaching us the importance of hip-hop as a culture. You’ll also find Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s remake of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” instructive in this regard. As far as hip-hop concept albums go, praise has to go out to Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves (1999), a hip-hop opera that revolves around a young man’s quest to finish his demo tape and his journey through the underbelly of the streets.
In 1999, Mos Def said:
Hip Hop will simply amaze you
Craze you, pay you
Do whatever you say do
But, Black, it can’t save you
— “Hip Hop”, Black on Both Sides
If hip-hop won’t save us, then we must be mindful of our power to save hip-hop. Hip Hop Is Dead demands that we, as saviors, ask ourselves, “What are we saving it from?” and “What are we saving it for?” We must have a purpose.
The guitar-laden backtrack of the song “Hip Hop Is Dead”, resurrected from Nas’s own “Thief’s Theme” (2004), might have been chosen as a link to Lenny Kravitz’s “Rock & Roll Is Dead” (1995). Not so much because the songs sound alike, mind you, but because Kravitz sang lines like this:
You can’t even sing or play an instrument
So you just scream instead
You’re living for an image
So you got five hundred women in your bed
Rock and Roll is dead
Prince (or, The Artist, as we called him back then) responded to Kravitz’s call with “Rock & Roll Is Alive (And It Lives in Minneapolis)” (1995), a b-side to the “Gold” single. Prince retorted, “Some people say it’s dyin’ / but we don’t wanna play that game”. Nas, as we know from his album, finds hope that his preferred genre is not deceased, thereby combining Kravitz’s call with Prince’s response.
But Nas probably owes the biggest debt to Ice Cube’s controversial album, Death Certificate (1991). Ice Cube sets the American nightmare within his scope, sporting an album cover that showed the rapper standing over a body that’s laid out and covered in the US flag, with a toe tag that reads, “Uncle Sam”. On a deeper level, Ice Cube’s “U.S.” stands for “us” — society in general, and the “Black community” in particular — every bit as much as it stands for “Uncle Sam”, the country. Insofar as “Uncle Sam” can be a pernicious state of mind absorbed into a group’s sense of identity, Ice Cube tells us that killing off our internal demons is paramount. On the song “U.S.”, Ice Cube rhymes in the third verse:
Us — will always sing the blues
‘Cause all we care about is hairstyles and tennis shoes
And if you step on mine, you pushed the button
‘Cause I’ll beat you down like it ain’t nothin’
And in the first verse:
We can’t enjoy ourselves
Too busy jealous at each other’s wealth
But comin’ up’s just in me
But the Black community is full of envy
You’ll find that last sentiment echoed in Nas’s aptly titled “Carry On Tradition”, when he says, “Hip-hop been dead, we the reason it died / Wasn’t…because MC’s skills are lost / It’s because we can’t see ourselves as the boss”.
But, more importantly, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate gave us the thesis for Hip Hop is Dead. Again from “US”:
Pretty soon, hip-hop won’t be so nice
No Ice Cube, just Vanilla Ice
And you’ll sit and scream and cuss
But there’s no one to blame — but us.
And that’s where the story of Hip Hop Is Dead really begins.
The Premise & the Battle
Every epic has a story, an argument, or a premise. In Paradise Lost, for example, John Milton famously set out to “justify the ways of God to men”. On Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas engages us in the possible consequences of hip-hop’s death. He’s asking, “What would you do if hip-hop died?” The scenario comes to life as a sort of hip-hop detective story voiced by the song “Who Killed It”, in which we hear Nas rhyming an allegory in imitation (and perhaps homage) to the hardboiled mystery stories. He’s usin’ the old “why-I-oughta” accent to tell a story, see? An allegory about hip-hop, personified as a “dame”, even. A “skirt”, a “broad”, a real looker. Now am-scray, will ya? Move, Kid, ya bother me.
Misogyny runs deep in our society, doesn’t it? But the genius of the song, and the work as a whole, is Nas’s ability to absorb our societal quirks and combine them with hip-hop’s traditions to weave his narrative. Nas isn’t the first to personify hip-hop, as he does in the title track (“On my second marriage, hip-hop’s my first wifey”). Common did it, of course, in “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (1994), analogizing hip-hop music to a woman he loves, a woman who eventually loses her way and becomes troubled and distant. Hip Hop Is Dead, then, could be seen as a continuation of Common’s premise, taking hip-hop’s dangerous behavior to its logical conclusion — an early grave.
Each song on Hip Hop Is Dead takes us through Nas’s journey to explore the implications of hip-hop’s death. In true epic fashion, the album opens in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of things”. The first song, “Money Over Bullsh*t” opens in the heat of battle, perhaps an allusion to the current debate over whether hip-hop is still viable (they say albums sales are down) or still relevant (they say the true hip-hop soldiers traded their rhymes for cars and flashy jewelry). In any event, Nas rhymes in fight mode, saying on the chorus:
Join me in war, many will live, many will mourn
Money Over Bullsh*t, pistols over brawn
Afraid not of none of you cowards but of my own strength
Afraid not of none of you cowards but of my own strength
The battle theme is continued on “You Can’t Kill Me”, which depicts Nas as being ready and able to fight. It’s possible, that Nas is rhyming, in an abstract way, from the first person view of Hip-Hop, thereby intertwining his artistic vision with the continued vitality of the art. Many of the album’s lyrics could be interpreted this way. As Nas says later on the title song, “If hip-hop should die, we die together”.
“Carry On Tradition” and “Where Are They Now” are the war cries, the former sounding like a mission statement for both “old” and “new” school acts, while the latter acts as a roll call for the “homies”, the soldiers of hip-hop, from Kwame and MC Shan to Special Ed and Shante. The technique of listing items, places, or people is an epic convention called “cataloguing”. The Iliad, for instance, catalogues battle camps:
Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians…Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Mars, led the people that dwelt in Aspledon and Orchomenus the realm of Minyas…The Phoceans were led by Schedius and Epistrophus, sons of mighty Iphitus the son of Naubolus.
Likewise, “Where Are They Now” catalogues the names of hip-hop’s finest:
Redhead Kingpin, Tim Dog? Have you seen ’em?
Kwame, King Tee, or King Sun
Super Lover Cee, Casanova Rud
Antoinette, Rob Base never showin’ up
You seen Black Sheep, Group Home, Busy Bee?
Ask Ill and Al Scratch, “Where my homies?”
Leave it to y’all, these n*ggas left for dead
Last week my man swore he saw Special Ed.
Yes, Nas revisits the so-called “golden age” of rap, the “good ol’ days”, but he’s doing more than remembering the “pioneers”. It’s also about how we’ve lived through hip-hop, how we’ve been shaped by it, and how we express kinship through shared experiences. Nas’s message should make us “Remember why” as much as it makes us “Remember when”.
Rap is like a ghost town, real mystic
Like these folks never existed
They’re the reason that rap became addictive
Play their CD or wax and get lifted
Moreover, some of the rappers mentioned are still active. For instance, Def Jef is still a top producer, while Kwame has written and produced songs for artists such as Lloyd Banks, Mary J. Blige, and Christina Aguilera. Special Ed released an album in 2004, and other leaders of the “old school” (C.L. Smooth, X-Clan, Public Enemy, MC Hammer, and Kool Keith, to name a few) dropped albums in 2006. So when Nas wants to know, “Where are they now?”, we’re faced with two challenges: (1) being knowledgeable about hip-hop’s history and (2) staying informed about what our artists are producing. These are our messengers. Nobody’s going to respect them if we don’t.
Some listeners gloss over the charge to be knowledgeable about our history. But when you think about it, it’s a big deal. Back in the ’80s, hip-hop didn’t have major label backing and worldwide distribution. Now, in the 21st century, the art’s been around long enough to warrant some sort of canon. So what should we include? Who are the central hip-hop figures? What are the major events in hip-hop? What’s essential listening? It’s no different than the curriculum debates in the US school systems, such as, “Should we reduce what our history courses will teach about George Washington to make room for people like Granville T. Woods or Irene Morgan or an event like the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riot in 1921?” For hip-hop, the question is, first of all, what does a person have to know about hip-hop to be considered “properly educated”? Obviously, Nas has some suggestions, “I got an exam, let’s see if y’all pass it / Let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest.”
From “Where Are They Now”, we move to the title track’s solidification of the album’s premise, followed by the whodunit rhyme of “Who Killed It?”, discussed above.
At this point, the album changes direction, focusing now on hip-hop’s descent. “Street life” in the “‘hood” — the “ghetto”, let’s say — becomes comparable to the “underworld” — the Hades of Greek mythology or the inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy — where heroes are often forced to travel. This descent begins with the Jay-Z collaboration “Black Republicans”, as our two titans of the hip-hop pantheon, Jay-Z (known to us as “Jay-Hova”) and Nas (who calls himself “God’s Son”) declaring their inability to turn away from “the ‘hood”. You’ll notice that Jay-Z starts the song referring to Nas as “Esco”, Nas’s often-used derivative of “Escobar” (as in the notorious Pablo Escobar), another sign that things are switching up. You’ll also notice that, with the slight exception of the title track’s chorus, “Black Republicans” marks the first appearance of another vocalist besides Nas. This way, Nas takes the first six songs to flesh out his premise. The musical backdrop of “Black Republicans” brings the necessary tension, incorporating a sample from Carmine Coppola’s Godfather compositions.
The Godfather trilogy (along with Scarface, Goodfellas, and similar films) has informed much of hip-hop’s music and presentation, from hip-hop’s undercurrent of organized crime themes to album covers using what I call “the Godfather font” — look at the lettering of the Godfather DVD cover and compare it to Young Jeezy’s The Inspiration or the album from Nas’s own super-group the Firm. The Godfather movies possess epic qualities, with Godfather III most ambitiously chronicling lead character Michael Corleone’s internal and external struggle to purge the original sin of his Family (its Mafia connections) and reach salvation. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) endeavors to legitimize his business, at the public level, while at the personal level seeking absolution, from the Pope no less, for ordering the deaths of his enemies, including his brother Fredo who ratted him out in Godfather II. But, as Michael tells his sister Connie, “All my life I kept trying to go up in society, where everything higher up was legal, straight. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. How in the hell does it end?”
That’s the Hell of an epic hero and, perhaps, a rap star, as hip-hop sought and achieved mainstream success and globalization. Is it possible that the higher hip-hop goes (more cash, more cars, more karats), even if it’s only in the videos, the more internally conflicted the artistic vision becomes? Getting back to Nas, we hear the hellish tension on “Not Going Back”, featuring his real life wife Kelis. The track opens with gunshots, and then there’s Nas’s mischievous voice, boasting, “What, n*gga! What b*tch-ass n*ggas! What! Babe, babe, start the car!” As he and his girl make their escape, Kelis complains, “Why are we out here? What’s going on?…This is crazy. Never again. You’d throw everything away, for what?”
We aren’t given the circumstances of the shooting. Unlike most hip-hop skits, this isn’t a miniature movie. Who was Nas shooting at? Was he playing himself or was he in character? It’s unclear, but what we know for sure is Nas’s declaration that he’s not going back to the ‘hood. Indeed, there’s a taboo about looking back, in hip-hop (“Yeah, my man Kool G Rap told me, ‘Son, do not look back'”) and in society at large, like the Bible story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The struggle to rise from the underworld is carried through “Still Dreamin'”, featuring Kanye West on production and a guest verse. Singers are introduced into the album through the song’s mystical and angelic melody, a precursor to the crooning in the final track. In his first verse following Kanye’s, Nas takes an adamant “do-it-yourself” tone about lifting oneself from adversity, laying the groundwork for a theme of revival and redemption in the latter portion of the album. In the next verse, Nas offers another girl-gone-backwards story, paralleling the Common-esque “I Used to Love H.E.R.” metaphor he’s been extending. From here, we’re taken to “Hold Down the Block”, which drives home the “underworld” concept or, as Tupac explained it back in 1993, the idea that “the streets are death row.”
“Blunt Ashes” precedes the next, and final, dramatic shift. The track opens with Nas’s meditation on whether Langston Hughes or Alex Haley got blunted before they told stories, foreshadowing the melancholy rhyme he’s about to unleash, a bluesy, humbling amalgam of era-defining personalities and events.
This raises another epic convention, the “invocation of the muse”. The epic poet invoked the muse, a divine spirit or deity, to fill the poet with the necessary inspiration to tell the story. In this way, the gods or goddesses spoke through the poet, as in The Iliad: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” Here, Nas pulls his inspiration from the cigar or blunt he’s smoking, as he imagines the cultural deities Hughes and Haley might have done, intertwining life and death as symbolized by the fall of the ashes:
As the blunt ash falls into the ashtray
I can see my whole life fly past me
(Did I?) Did I keep it gangsta or keep it classy?
And will the money and fame outlast me?
You might also view this as Hip-Hop speaking through Nas, absorbing the tragedies and obstacles of the greats, from the deaths of Phyllis Hyman, Ennis Cosby, Donny Hathaway, and Larry and Roger Troutman of Zapp to the social obstacles faced by Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel. Nas portrays the gods and goddesses of popular culture as being beautifully and painfully flawed and, as deeply as we’ve been affected by it all, there are lessons to be learned:
And I wouldn’t change a thing
Mistakes of the greats
This is what came from their pain
From their hurt we gain, an unfair exchange
The technique of “invoking the muse” puts an alternate spin on the namedropping already discussed in “Where Are They Now”, as a way of calling upon the strength of those who pioneered the art form.
Interestingly, “Blunted Ashes” shares similarities to KRS-One’s “I Can’t Wake Up” from Return of the Boom Bap (1993). In that song, KRS-One dreams about being a blunt and, unable to wake himself from his sleep, he’s passed around by the hip-hop artists of the day — House of Pain, Cypress Hill, Das EFX, Black Sheep, and so on down the line. Even non-rappers appear in the dream:
De La Soul took a hit and kept hittin’
Now they’re buggin’ ’cause they passed me to Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton said, “I’ll smoke but I won’t inhale
I’ll only hit it twice,” he got slapped by Greg Nice
Like KRS-One’s song, “Blunted Ashes” moves rhetorically from topic to topic, in stream of consciousness fashion. Just as KRS-One dreams of being a blunt, you’ll notice that Nas’ song about the blunt’s ashes is preceded by the song “Still Dreamin'”.
The fall of the previous song’s ashes completes the hero’s descent. He’s ready now to ascend, illustrated by the next song, “Let There Be Light”. I don’t love the singing in this song, but its intentions are good, allowing churchy vocals and impassioned inflections to signify the album’s mood change. The title “Let There Be Light” should immediately strike us as symbolic of divine intervention, or deus ex machina (god in the machine), a common occurrence in epics.
Emerging into the light always calls for a celebration. “Play on Playa” makes way for the festivities, constructed over a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance”. You’ll recall Ice Cube’s use of this sample on his song “Steady Mobbin'”, also from Death Certificate, over which Ice Cube says, “You gotsta know ‘steady mobbin’ ain’t just the name of this jam, but a way of life”. The preservation of hip-hop as a positive “way of life” is a continual theme for Nas. Any song featuring Snoop Dogg (“Play on Playa”) is bound to be more celebratory than moody or brooding, making him a fine choice for the collaboration.
The theme of ascension is amplified in “Can’t Forget About You”, infused with “Unforgettable” by Nat “King” Cole, another larger-than-life musician. There’s quite a bit of reminiscing in this song, and it plays out like a duet between Nas (on the verses) and Hip-Hop (vocalist Chrisette Michele singing the hooks), not unlike Natalie Cole’s version with her father’s vocals, or Nas’s collaboration with his own father Olu Dara (“Bridging the Gap”). Between Nas’s inspired nostalgia, Hip-Hop sings:
These streets hold my deepest days
This hood taught me golden ways
Made me, truly this is what made me
Break me, not a thing’s gonna break me
Ohh, I’m that history, I’m that block
I’m that lifestyle I’m that spot
I’m that kid by the number spot
That’s my past that made me hot
Here’s my lifelong anthem
Cole’s voice finishes the track, taking us into “Hustlers”. Nas maximizes the euphoria, commenting on his efforts with Dr. Dre as sprinkling “a little bit of heaven for your ears”, making references to “celebrating”, being at “high altitude”, and reiterating the fact that “the God’s back”. Guest rhymer the Game follows suit, adding a humorous gem about being in a record store in the ’90s. He couldn’t afford to buy both Nas’s Illmatic and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, so he says he stole them both, and then chose to listen to Illmatic. The album closes, as it should, with “Hope”, an a cappella rhyme supported by heavenly intonations:
Live hip-hop live, live hip-hop live
Give hip-hop give, give hip-hop give
Stay hip-hop stay, stay hip-hop stay
I pray, hip-hop pray, I pray hip-hop stays
Nas’s final declaration that hip-hop comes from the soul, backed by these harmonies, gives me goosebumps. At last, we have arrived. Hip-hop, though not dead, is in need of torchbearers to maintain its traditions and influence its future. And as Nas’s epic comes to a close, our story begins, “‘Cause if you’re askin’, ‘Why is hip-hop dead?'” Nas says, “It’s a pretty good chance you’re the reason it died, man.”
* * *
2pac. “Old School”. Me Against the World (Interscope, 1995).
Chuck D. The Autobiography of Mistachuck (Polygram, 1996).
De La Soul. De La Soul Is Dead (Tommy Boy/Rhino, 1991).
Digital Underground. “Heartbeat Props”. Sons of the P (Tommy Boy/Rhino, 1991).
Effinger, Sandra. “Ms. Effie’s Lifesaver’s For English Teachers”.
Homer, The Iliad & the Odyssey (translated by Samuel Butler) [E-texts].
Ice Cube, Death Certificate (Interscope, 1991).
Kravitz, Lenny. “Rock & Roll Is Dead”. Circus (Virgin, 1995).
KRS-One. “I Can’t Wake Up”. Return of the Boom Bap (Jive, 1993).
Milton, John. Paradise Lost [E-Text].
Mos Def. “Hip Hop”, Black on Both Sides (1999).
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Blackstar. Black Star (Rawkus, 1998).
Nas. God’s Son (Sony, 2002).
— Illmatic (Sony, 1994).
— Stillmatic (Sony, 2001).
— Streets Disciple (Sony, 2004).
Prince [the Artist]. “Rock & Roll Is Alive: And It Lives in Minneapolis”, Gold single (1995).