Fuck the cars, the jewelry — all he needs is one mic.
Nas knows the power he can derive from words — just look at the sheer amount of commotion he stirred up with this album’s title alone. Nas can make a solid record without trying, dropping verse after tight verse and picking some not-too-bad beats as backing music. He’s done this a few times before. What makes a Nas album good then? The beat selection, yes — a lot of any rap album’s classic status or cohesion comes from the strength and depth of the loops that the rapper can marshal. But Nas himself, solid as he is when he’s not even looking, is a most formidable force when he wakes up. Hip Hop Is Dead may not be on the level of Illmatic‘s blend of sublime production and flawless lyricism, but Nas is more than just awake — he’s wide-eyed and there’s fire under his haunches, he’s not kidding, not messing around. This, more than anything, makes the album.
For now we’ll set aside the debate over hip-hop’s pulse, that which has either swelled since the ’70s, died after “Rapper’s Delight”, crumbled after crunk and snap, or come back this fall, based on just whom you ask. Hip-hop is hip-hop is hip-hop, is many things to many people, and just like any good art form it changes and flows with the times. Sure, Nas has titled both his album and its first single “Hip Hop Is Dead”, but apart from some vague and unsupported statements of this view and some standard pining-for-the-old-school rhetoric throughout, this opinion of his only matters to the album in one real respect: it pisses Nas off, and this spurs him on, drives him to heights of his craft.
We’ll begin with the production instead. The heavenly glow of Illmatic aside, Nas has since been a reliable provider of competent but unmemorable beats, with a few classics each album. From the swirling darkness of “Nas Is Like” to the impossibly badass “Thief’s Theme” to James Brown on “Get Down”, “Made You Look”… even back to “Shoot ‘Em Up”‘s “Carol of the Bells” lilt, Nas has been good for at least a few magic cuts every time around. Hip Hop Is Dead has its share of unspectacular loops, but while these tracks — tracks like “Carry on Tradition”, “Hold Down the Block” and even the Chris Webber production “Blunt Ashes” — won’t really have loads of staying power, neither do they really fail or dampen the proceedings. And in between these, Nas gives us more than his usual share of undeniable bangers.
Opener “Money Over Bullshit” is a definite highlight, ominous piano and unflagging drums with even the smallest touches, the swirling cymbals and eerily disembodied whistling, expertly placed. “Hip Hop Is Dead” is no “Thief’s Theme”, but even with the sample bite aside, that’s not because it’s necessarily better or worse — it’s an entirely different animal, the first song a murderous crawl through a city at night with a shotgun, the new song a jaunty sprint with a handgun and Nas more lithe and nimble than street poetic. Kanye drops two gems with the pretty “Still Dreaming” and the airy swirl of “Let There Be Light”, but the almost impossibly waited-on Jay-Z collabo “Black Republicans” manages to outshine both with its inspired sampling and ridiculously cinematic feel. Dre’s “Hustlers” puts Nas and the Game on a wonderfully, screechily melodramatic beat with Nas relaxing and flexing his muscles while the Game just eats it all up like a satisfied kid; and, if all these weren’t enough, Will.I.Am blesses the record once more with a Nat King Cole cop. “Can’t Forget About You” is a hands-down instant classic, indelible piano chords and a gorgeous hook mixing perfectly with Nas’s reminiscences. Front to back, Hip Hop Is Dead isn’t the best production Nas has ever had, but a higher-than-usual percentage of the tracks fits right up there as such, and overall it’s remarkably solid.
These, though, are only the foundations. In a year of Southern conquerors and Jay-Z himself slipping in puddles of detractors and his own inflated ambitions, Nas could easily have just slacked off and I almost expected it. Far from this, Nas pushes lyricism and technical virtuosity to the forefront here, stretching both his own boundaries and those around him. Every verse sounds simultaneously natural and meticulously planned, the syllables ticking out seemingly as they are thought up and falling into the most complex of patterns. Nas spins no yarns; he weaves nets, ropes, snares, snowflake-slick spiderwebs.
The last track, “Hope”, is almost completely a cappella — Nas tears through his lines entirely without accompaniment for most of the track, eventually backed only by a lilting chorus, “Live, hip-hop, live”. Hip-hop is dead? Fuck it. Nas isn’t. And he’s done it again.