Not to split hairs, but if you want to make a point about hip-hop's creative paralysis, it's probably not the best idea to do so over a production track you yourself already used six years earlier. Or maybe that's the point: Over a snippet of the Incredible Bongo Band's version of "Inna Gadda Da Vida" that he first deployed on 2004's "Thief's Theme," Nas goes after all-flash MCs, rapping, "Everybody sound the same." Maybe… read more »
Not to split hairs, but if you want to make a point about hip-hop's creative paralysis, it's probably not the best idea to do so over a production track you yourself already used six years earlier. Or maybe that's the point: Over a snippet of the Incredible Bongo Band's version of "Inna Gadda Da Vida" that he first deployed on 2004's "Thief's Theme," Nas goes after all-flash MCs, rapping, "Everybody sound the same." Maybe his sonic recycling is just the ironic punchline at the end of a bitter joke.
Hip-Hop is Dead raised hackles when it came out, read as both an excoriation of then-prominent Southern hip-hop and also as the album-length equivalent of an old man shaking his cane at the young kids fucking up his begonias. Time has revealed it to instead be more of a summary statement, Nas laying out the lessons he's learned in a tone that's almost fatherly. He's not scolding so much as reminiscing — if he sounds sad about the contemporary state of hip-hop, it's only because he played an active role in its formative years. To wit: "Where Are They Now?" which is essentially a laundry list of disappeared MCs, with Nas asking after the lapsed careers of once-notables like Black Sheep, Mic Geronimo and Busy Bee. Though he never says it outright, it's clear he means it, at least in part, as a cautionary tale.
A few more bad decisions and it was a fate Nas himself might have suffered. He'd already been humiliated in rhyme by Jay-Z and his previous album, Street's Disciple, appealed mainly to the faithful. But by the time Hip-Hop is Dead was released, people were ready to love a Nas record again, and Nas was more than willing to meet them halfway. The album contains some of his fiercest and most perfectly calibrated work. Look at this lyrical run that closes out the ominous, piano-laden opening track "Money Over Bullshit": "From crack pushers to 'lac pushers and ambushers/ and morticians to fortresses, case-dismissers laced in riches/ cake ridiculous — from nickel & dimin' to trickin' them diamonds…" Or this one, at the start of the moody and beautiful "Not Going Back": "The top 10 list of the most grimiest guys of all time/ Is all we talk when we talk of New York, y'all/ Who to call and who to stay away from/ who's mother's address to have just to play it safe, son." He's aided throughout by stellar production. Kanye West gifts him "Still Dreaming," a giddy bit of chipmunk soul that he frontloads with a clever dirty joke of his own: "He pulled up at 6:30 in a 745/ as he wavin' shorty 'hi,' you know he showin' his bling out/ She got in the car, he drove, he pulled his thing out/ His girl called feelin' she's mad, she threw the ring out."
The album came at a crucial juncture for Nas. He and Jay-Z — then Def Jam's CEO — had just smoothed over their very public beef, and Nas signing to the label was seen as something of an olive branch. Extending the goodwill even further, Jay himself appears on the stormy "Black Republicans," laughing "It's what you expected, ain't it?" at the song's outset — implying the song's greatness before it's even a full minute in. He's not far off: In a way, "Black Republicans" almost continues the rivalry between the two, but in a more diplomatic and productive way — both MC's bringing their A-Game as a way of both showing up and spurring on the other. And what's the song about? A falling out between old friends, of course, but the parties emerge at the other end not embittered, but emboldened and wiser: "You mix things like cars, jewelry and Miss Things/ jealousy, ego and pride and this brings/ it all to a head, like a coin, cha-ching/ Evil strikes again." This, more than anything, summarizes the true spirit of Hip-Hop is Dead — it's the kind of recrimination meant to inspire not excuses, but progress.