Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CD Review: Hip Hop Is Dead by Nas

In the title of his new album as well as in his hit single of the same name, Nas asserts that hip-hop is dead. The sheer thought of the man behind the classic album Illmatic declaring hip-hop dead sent shockwaves through the industry with artists ranging from Big Boi to new labelmates Ludacris and Young Jeezy expressing disdain at Nas's remarks. With Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas has made one of his better albums, one that proves that hip-hop has life in it yet.

A few themes pop up throughout Hip Hop Is Dead. The first theme is a feeling of nostalgia for older days and earlier generations of hip-hop. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the song “Where Are They Now.” Driven by a James Brown sample, “Where Are They Now” name checks virtually every notable rapper of the late 1980's and early 1990's. He bemoans the fact that many of these artists have been forgotten by newer generations: “Rap is like a ghost town / Real mystic / Like these folks never existed...” He also gives them praise, calling them “the reason that rap became addictive” and any artists he doesn't mention in the verses, he shouts out at the end of the song.

Producer Will.I.Am uses Nat King Cole's “Unforgettable” as the backdrop for “Can't Forget About You,” another song that continues the theme of nostalgia. Nas reminisces about the past (“Can't forget when the first rap Grammy went to Jazzy”) and looks forward a future with a “Straw hat / On the porch.” Also present on this song is the next theme prevalent throughout Hip Hop Is Dead: a frustration with the current state of hip-hop. Nas says bitterly that “Heinous crimes help record sales more than creative lines.”

The theme of disappointment with some of the current generation of hip-hop appears more prominently on “Carry On Tradition.” The song is all about continuing the traditions of previous generations and Nas uses the opportunity to talk about the way some newer artists (who remain nameless) don't do that. He chides them on their ignorance of early hip-hop (“Let's see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest?”) and the way they use acclaim for their “bricks” to hate on bigger, more established names.

While the themes of notstalgia and disappointment with current hip-hop dominate a good portion of the album, much of it is just filled with music that's thoughtful and sometimes daring. An example of the latter would be “Who Killed It?” Nas, who once rapped from the perspective of a gun, attempts his best Edward G. Robinson impression to tell a film noir-esque tale on this song. Although the quality of the song is debatable, you have to give Nas credit for trying something truly different. Something like this would usually be the domain of indie rappers and you have to wonder if we'll see another mainstream rapper try something so out there.

“Black Republican” is the long-awaited collaboration between Nas and former rival Jay-Z. The end result is pretty good with the two of them showing off their contrasting styles from the hook (where Nas calls himself a “black militant” as opposed to the title) to their verses. The dramatic classical music sample adds to the spectacle.

Even though Nas titled his album Hip Hop Is Dead, the album serves to prove that hip-hop is far from dead. In fact, with all the controversy over the album title, anyone who listens to it will realize that Nas doesn't actually think hip-hop is dead. He is just frustrated with the way things are right now, just as some fans who grew up with him are. Hip-hop has survived being called a fad, censorship, tragedy, introduction to suburbia, and even police raids against mixtape DJ's. It's not going anywhere but that doesn't mean we can't demand more from it. That might really be the message of Hip Hop Is Dead.

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