Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Album Review: Hip Hop is Dead by Nas

Just about every “year in review” article and recap has already been turned in, which means you won’t find Nas on many top 10 lists for 2006. This is a shame, because Nasty Nas has undoubtedly turned in one of the finest hip hop efforts of the year with his grimy, gritty Hip Hop is Dead.

This is not to say that Nas has submitted a classic. As the fall rolled along, I started to get my hopes up that this would be the case. Between a general upturn in rap (thanks to the Game, the Clipse, Lupe Fiasco, and Ghostface Killah, among others) and the sterling efforts of Nas himself, it felt like he had all the momentum necessary to absolutely knock this one out of the park. With a memorable guest spot on “Why You Hate the Game” from the Game’s Doctor’s Advocate, the ridiculously good pre-release mixtape The N … The Resurrection of Hip Hop, and a handful of terrific leaked tracks including “Hustlers” (previously known as “QB True G”), there was ample evidence that Nas would once again reach the heights of Illmatic.

Alas, while Hip Hop is Dead is an outstanding rap album, it doesn’t quite merit a “classic” tag. The irony here is that it is Nas’ relentless dedication to traditionalism that holds him back. There is no doubt Nas wanted to make a statement about the hip hop industry on this and one need only to check the title to know how he feels about the genre. This might explain why the album is so straightforward, almost entirely devoid of gimmicks and tricks. For the purist in me, it is a breath of fresh air and harkens back to a bygone era when hip hop was simply constructed on clean beats and skillful rapping about crime, politics, and the hustle. Unfortunately, there is another part of me that is spoiled by some of the chances that other artists have taken in recent years. The result is that I am left feeling like Hip Hop is Dead is “this close” to being perfect.

The album gets off to a blistering start with “Money Over Bullshit.” L.E.S. hooks Nas up with a menacing beat as a throbbing bass line is augmented with haunting keyboards and a downright creepy whistle. The vocals are trademark Nas; complex rhyme schemes detailing a fairly simple story, which is basically the rise to the top (“from nine-blaster to I don’t have to blast mine/they blast my, black nine/you flat line/my cash climb”). The third song on the track, “Carry on Tradition” makes good use of a decent Scott Storch beat and combines with the outstanding Salaam Remi throwback track “Where Are They Now” to form an instant hip hop history lesson.

The title track and the Jay-Z collaboration “Black Republicans” have both been heard far and wide over the past month but still pack punch in the middle of the album, lending the weight that a popular single often provides and serving as an anchor for the surrounding pieces.

The back half of the album sees a bit of a change of pace, as two Kanye West songs set the tone for a more reflective, soulful stretch of music. However, in what can only be described as an upset of massive proportions, Kanye is matched by a journeyman producer named Mark Batson, who lends Nas a smooth, basic beat for “Hold Down the Block,” one of the album’s best tracks. This is followed by “Can’t Forget About You,” a kind of throwback song featuring a cacophony of horns, Nat King Cole melodies, and other big band sounds that don’t quite work. It’s an ambitious effort from Nas and, but the verdict is still out on whether it is any good.

The back half of the album isn’t as strong as the front. The Kanye tracks aren’t the standouts I hoped for, the Chris Webber-produced (yes, that Chris Webber) “Blunt Ashes” is rather boring, and in all honesty, I wish the Snoop-assisted “Play on Playa” would have been left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, “Hustlers” makes up for any and all of that. I’m prone to hyperbole, so I don’t want to get carried away, but this Nas-Game-Dre collaboration might be the best rap song of the year. With lines like “the Jordan’s sportin’/come off the dice game with a fortune walkin’/you a walkin’ coffin/the musket, I tucked it/you bluff it, I bust it” you get the sense that Nas has been saving his best rhymes for the chance to drop them on a escalating, menacing Dre track.

All told, this album may not be perfect, but it’s good enough. Most importantly, it is proof that Nas himself is wrong. Hip hop is very much alive.

Score: 8.3

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