January 1, 2011

Nas - Hip Hop Is Dead (December 15, 2006)


Legend has it that Nasir Jones went to sleep one night after mixing several bottles of vodka with Yoo Hoo chocolate drink and several bong hits (for good measure).  As could be expected, he had a restless night: his dreams all seemed to revolve around clowns at a nearby circus fucking his mother, cashing out his 401k and spending it willy-nilly on privatized health care, and doing battle against vampire elves whose diet consisted exclusively of vacuum cleaner filters.  When he eventually awoke the next afternoon (Nas needs his beauty rest), he immediately had the title for what would end up being his eighth solo album, Hip Hop Is Dead.

That legend may or may not be bullshit, but the album title is real.  Sort of.  After the audio abortion that was his previous project, the double album Street's Disciple, Nas took a step back and observed our chosen genre from the perspective of an aging rapper who isn't taken as seriously as he once was, thanks to a severe lack of quality control and a tendency to coast on laurels that no longer exist, and he wasn't happy with what he saw.  The music industry had decided that commerce was more important than artistic expression, resulting in hip hop music that focused on materialism versus substance dominating the airwaves.  Unfortunately, this was a direction that hip hop had taken at least a full decade prior, during Puff Daddy's Shiny Suit era: one could say that Nas was late to this party.

One could also say that Nas was on the winning side of the argument, placing his early, post-Illmatic career in the hands of production team The Trackmasters, who were, admittedly, a part of the problem that Hip Hop Is Dead's title was attempting to address.  However, Nas himself admitted that he chose the album's title (which was originally entitled the more confusing Hip Hop Is Dead...The N, in reference to...I don't know, something he thought was important at the time, I'm sure) as purely a publicity move, and nothing more, and it worked: Hip Hop Is Dead received more press than any other Nasir Jones project in history (hell, I inadvertently draw attention to it every single time I add a post to my blog, which wasn't really named after this album but kind of was anyway), at least until his follow-up, which he wanted to call N----r but his label forced him to leave Untitled, which was more controversial for obvious reasons.

Not that Nas needed any help generating interest.  Dissatisfied with the way he was being promoted at Columbia Records (a conglomerate that also distrubuted his vanity label, Ill Will Records), he accepted an offer by his arch-nemesis, Shawn Carter, to sign with Def Jam Records (again, part of the problem), in an effort to put his music ahead of any petty beef he once had with Jay-Z (see: Hova's "Takeover"; Nasir's "Ether"; Jay's "Supa Ugly").  Jay himself announced this new alliance onstage at a concert, which was hinted at by Nasir's mere presence on Roc-A-Fella employee Kanye West's sophomore project Late Registration on "We Major", one of the better-received tracks on that album (and 'Ye's personal favorite); having Nas appear on a Def Jam album in the midst of a war of words with their biggest star, Jay-Z, would have been unheard of as little as six months prior.

Hip Hop Is Dead serves as Nasir's Def Jam debut, and the attention he received during the recording process led to a slightly larger budget, which our host spent on higher-priced production from names such as Kanye, Dr. Dre, and will.i.am from the Black Eyed Sellouts.  However, Nas is astoundingly loyal to some of his previous collaborators, securing beats from the likes of L.E.S. (who was given the opportunity to helm the we-all-saw-it-coming Nas/Jay-Z collaboration, "Black Republican") and Salaam Remi, the guy who had gifted Nas with some of his best songs over this current, lesser phase of his career.

Nasir's plan was a success: Hip Hop Is Dead became a critical darling, if not the blockbuster seller that Def Jam was hoping for.  It represented a huge step forward in our host's career, even though he had to abandon his Ill Will imprint in order to make the move.  (As part of his agreement to Columbia Records, in order to be released to swim around in Def Jam's money vault, he had to shed the vanity label and release one final project, a greatest hits album called, amazingly enough, Greatest Hits, which dropped less than a year after this project.)

None of this shit matters, though, if the music isn't any good.  So I put it to you, Nasir Jones, God's Son: do you have what it takes to finally win back the audience that loves Illmatic, or does Hip Hop Is Dead represent a man diving further up his own ass, living in denial instead of simply hanging it up and taking the day shift at the old folks home down the way?

You tell me.

1. MONEY OVER BULLSHIT
Nasir forgoes a rap album intro for his Def Jam debut, admonishing those who oppose his ideals and reiterating that our chosen genre is, indeed, dead. He also calls people “bitches”. A lot. The three verses on here aren't bad, as they serve as the rebirth of an unquestionable hip hop icon, but the L.E.S. beat (also credited to producer Wyldfyre) isn't nearly as dramatic as it should be for such an occasion: it does the job, but in a half-assed manner that would cause many an employer to question why it is still on the payroll when they could hire six less-qualified beats to fill in the space at a cheaper rate. Also, the hook was fucking garbage. But by Nas standards, though, this was alright enough.

2. YOU CAN'T KILL ME
Personally, I could give a fuck what Nas does in his private life in NYC, so the fact that he starts “You Can't Kill Me” with a random list of destinations, like the hip hop equivalent of a Zagat's guide, is a turn-off. He quickly ditches that concept to tell a tall tale about a night on the town and how one of his friends turned against him, and then quickly abandons that concept to spout random shit about how indestructible he is. L.E.S.'s instrumental is fucking weak, and Nas, who is normally a good storyteller, isn't able to pull it out in the clutch. Nothing about this track will ever save hip hop from its imminent death.

3. CARRY ON TRADITION
There's a rather large chunk of this song that is censored: if anyone can help fill in the blanks, I would appreciate it. Nobody's questioning Nasir's love for hip hop: in fact, he comes across as an embittered patriarch, watching his loved ones continue to make mistakes, sullying the family crest in the process. While he has a valid point (most rappers never evolve beyond working as an employee for a record label: Nas feels that the genre would remain viable if more artists took control of their own destiny, running those very same labels), I don't personally believe that hip hop would necessarily benefit from the implementation of his ideas: the lure of the almighty dollar would probably still fuck up the quality of our chosen genre, thanks to the resounding horrific taste of the general public (hey, Soulja Boy Tell 'Em came up on his own with his self-produced shitty version of rap), and besides, not every rapper has a handle on the day-to-day operations of running a label. I appreciated Nasir's attempt to inject some humor into what is ultimately a somber discussion, as he threatens to record a double LP using only samples from different parts of “Nautilus” by Bob James. See, even Nas believes that sample appears in every rap song ever made!

4. WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Taking his love of old-school hip hop to its obvious next step, Nasir Jones ponders the whereabouts of the rappers who were popular around the time he was growing up and establishing himself. He drops so many names that he's bound to hit one artist that you yourself were also wondering about. Salaam Remi's instrumental sounds like the type of beat Big Daddy Kane might have used back in the day. This concept runs out of steam after two verses, but Nas goes even further: as a pretty fucking cool marketing tool, he actually tracked down a lot of the hip hop ghosts represented on this track and convinced them to spit a few bars on one of three “Where Are They Now” remixes, which were divided up into a 1980s version, one for 1990s-era rappers, and a West Coast remix. All in all, this was actually a pretty cool idea, and it led to something pretty amazing, so that was nice, but when you see it as it was originally intended, within the context of an album entitled Hip Hop Is Dead and nothing more, it's merely alright.

5. HIP HOP IS DEAD (FEAT. WILL.I.AM)
I'm still confused as to why Nas felt the need to re-use the Iron Butterfly “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” sample so soon after “Thief's Theme”, but he acknowledges this fact at the very beginning of this title track, so at least he's aware. “Thief's Theme” uses the source material in a far better manner, in my opinion, but obviously (given the name of this very blog) the subject matter on here hits a bit closer to home. The “Apache” breakdowns made me wish that Nas would have simply spit over that particular breakbeat, and as an opponent of censorship, I hate the fact that the fucking song is essentially a radio edit, removing any and all violent references from the version that originally leaked online (for instance, the entire chorus is altered to remove a mention of an AK and to change the “murder the deejay” line into “wreck the deejay”, which actually sounds more painful than an outright homicide). Nas sounded just fine, but will.i.am's schizophrenic production work was a bit iffy.

6. WHO KILLED IT?
A lot of listeners apparently didn't understand what this song was supposed to be back in 2006, so for those of you in the cheap seats, Nasir Jones is playing a Sam Spade gumshoe detective-type who trying to solve the murder of hip hop (and he does so GZA/Genius-style, dropping so many names and ideas that I hope The Game was following closely behind with a dustpan). The execution is actually quite ambitious (I'd rather hear Nas rhyme with this particular inflection than listen to his altered Scarlett persona again): not surprisingly, most of the complaints about “Who Killed It?” were derived from Nasir's performance. It's just a fucking song, folks: who cares that he kind of sounds like Bugs Bunny? I actually liked this much more than the title track, so finally, one of his experiments actually paid off.

7. BLACK REPUBLICAN (FEAT. JAY-Z)
This collaboration was a long time coming; the very moment Hova announced that he signed Nas to Def Jam, hip hop fanatics had been foaming at the mouth. So of course, the resulting track has to sound fucking majestic, and in that respect, L.E.S. did not disappoint, jacking from “Marcia Religiosa” (best known for its use in The Godfather Part II) while Shawn and Nasir celebrate their new business dealings and, I can only assume, the fact that they both used to fuck the same girl. I can understand why Jay can look past the attacks on “Ether”, but I never got why God's Son let Jay get away with “Supa Ugly”, which took their beef into a new and disgusting personal level (remember the used condoms in the baby seat in the back of the car?), but fuck it, money talks, I guess. This song was well worth the wait, even if these two have never been able to recapture lightning in a bottle with their later collaborations.

8. NOT GOING BACK (FEAT. KELIS)
Signing with Def Jam has its obvious benefits (see: “Black Republican”, which probably would have never happened otherwise), but Nas still being Nas, Hip Hop Is Dead still has to include crappy songs that feature our host throwing a lot of words at you without truly saying anything. Just like it was during my write-up for Street's Disciple, hearing Nas and Kelis appear on the same track is still fucking awkward, but one must keep looking forward. The only interesting aspect of this song was when Nas declared that he would never go back to Sony (read: Columbia). Unless they show him the money, of course. Don't want to burn too many bridges.

9. STILL DREAMING (FEAT. KANYE WEST & CHRISETTE MICHELE)
Another benefit of signing up for the Def Jam hip hop health care plan: easier access to Kanye West's Late Registration leftovers. Okay, that's (probably) not what this song is: it sounds too much like “Late” for a perfectionist such as 'Ye to have ever considered it for his own album. This sounds really fucking good, though: 'Ye's brash attitude contrasts Nasir's elder status nicely, while Chrisette Michele's vocals are woven throughout the beat as though she was the living embodiment of a soulful sample that the producer would have used otherwise. The result is a pleasant, enjoyable track, one of Kanye's finest (outside of those on his own albums, of course).

10. HOLD DOWN THE BLOCK
Nasir's occasional excursions into thugged-out territory tend to ring hollow these days, mainly because we are keenly aware that he fucking knows better than to resort to that life, especially given his high public profile. (When stories about you appear on TMZ, you should assume that people are watching your every move.) Even when he's just telling stories on behalf of other folks who are actually living that lifestyle, you're left wondering what he's doing out in such a bad neighborhood so late at night, and you'll probably offer to give him a ride back to his well-kept home. This was all a very roundabout way to say that this song sucked.

11. BLUNT ASHES
The idea of Nas smoking himself retarded and then spouting half-informed stories and conspiracy theories isn't the worst that hip hop has come up with: we've all had that experience with that one stoner that just won't shut the fuck up. Nas also nails the paranoia that is inherent with this behavior, as well. The song itself is only alright, but the most interesting aspect is the production, provided by NBA star Chris Webber, formerly of the Golden State Warriors. Yes, people are allowed to do more than one thing in their lifetime, thanks. His beat isn't bad, either.

12. LET THERE BE LIGHT (FEAT. TRE WILLIAMS)
I didn't care for this song. That's all I got.

13. PLAY ON PLAYA (FEAT. SNOOP DOGG)
I don't think anybody was eagerly anticipating a collaboration between Nas and Snoop Dogg, especially one over a Scott Storch beat that coerces Nas to start bragging about his prowess with the ladies instead of, I don't know, saying anything worthwhile. So it's to their credit that this song isn't entirely awful, although I must stress that I enjoyed Snoop far more than God's Son on here, as he is much better suited to this fuckery. Still would have preferred hearing Snoop make a cameo on the Dr. Dre beat that appears later on Hip Hop Is Dead, though. (Oops! SPOILER ALERT!)

14. CAN'T FORGET ABOUT YOU (FEAT. CHRISETTE MICHELE)
I like Chrisette Michele's voice, which makes its second of three appearances on Hip Hop Is Dead: it's lifted straight out of a different musical era that is far more interesting than the one she is forced to perform within. This second single is as much her song as it is Nasir's, and it isn't bad, thanks to its overall jazzy feel and actual effort from our host. The Nat King Cole “Unforgettable” sample is already too prevalent, though, so letting the song end by actually playing the original song was a bit much.

15. HUSTLERS (FEAT. THE GAME & MARSHA AMBROSIUS)
Nas does have a point: he was the first East Coast rapper to embrace Dr. Dre's beats (on his “Nas Is Coming” off of It Was Written, which wasn't all that great), so Dre's appearance behind the boards isn't all that surprising (actually, I take that back: it is a shock, considering our host's tendency to purchase bargain-bin beats). When Hip Hop Is Dead dropped, it was considered a big deal that The Game was to be featured on a Dre song, since his working relationship with the head of Aftermath had already been severed, but it's fairly obvious that Jayceon was added after the fact: Nasir's two verses don't even provide a hint that there was supposed to be a second artist, as the references to Compton during the hook could easily apply to Dre himself, and Game turns in a performance that sounds as though he believed this was going to end up on one of his You Know What It Is mixtapes instead of an actual album. There isn't anything revolutionary about this track, especially Dre's rather plain generic replacement fir a name-brand prescription, but given the rest of Hip Hop Is Dead, this could have been worse.

16. HOPE (FEAT. CHRISETTE MICHELE)
A curious way to end the evening. This wasn't originally supposed to be a Nas spoken word outro: the underlying beat, taken from Friends Of Distinction's cover of one of my favorite Beatles songs, “And I Love Her”, passed away during the sample wars, and yet Nasir decided to honor its memory by leaving the song on the album anyway. As a result, Michele's contribution sounds ridiculously out of place, but hey, at least she made some money off of this shit. The surprise is that our host's lyrics are actually compelling enough to hold your attention without the aid of any music. So that was unexpected.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Hip Hop Is Dead appears to declare Nas as a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, but I pose that the reverse is actually true: a lot of Nas albums suck rhino cock (save for Illmatic, of course), as they feature our host coasting on the credibility his first album bought him and nothing more, lyrics and (especially) production work be damned. There is usually one or two really fucking great songs on each Nasir Jones project, but if he were being graded on consistency, it would be proven that he is actually more detrimental to the hip hop cause than many of the “artists” that we feel actually did fuck everything up. Nas will forever receive an immense amount of goodwill because Illmatic is probably as close to a perfect rap album that one can get, and I imagine that is an awful lot of pressure for one man to shoulder, so I'm not all that shocked at the lack of quality control on his later output. That all being said, Hip Hop Is Dead truly is more of the same, albeit with a different record label's logo on the back: Nas has yet to learn from his past mistakes (“You Can't Kill Me” and “Not Going Back” may as well have been recorded during his Nastradamus years), and he cements his reputation as being the rapper least likely to pay any attention to what the fans actually want to hear from him (*cough* DJ Premier collaboration album *cough*). Hip Hop Is Dead isn't all bad news, though: even though, by his own admission, he chose the title for shock value and free publicity, he actually sticks with the theme for several tracks, with varying degrees of believability: if Nas really felt that our chosen genre was dead, then why would he continue to rhyme? Doesn't he have any other life skills? (Oh wait, he probably doesn't – he states on “Hope” that he's never held a summer job.) This critique has already become far too long, so I'll end by saying that Hip Hop Is Dead is just your typical post-Illmatic Nas album, with a handful of really good songs thrown in with the wash. At least it's much better than Nastradamus, but if hip hop is truly dead, Nasir Jones is an accomplice to murder, albeit one of many.

BUY OR BURN? I can see the hate mail coming, but I don't give a damn: this is worth a burn only. This album is filled with a lot of good ideas, but its poor execution causes it to trip over its own shoelaces at the starting line, and most of these songs don't really hold up four years later.

BEST TRACKS: “Black Republican”; “Still Dreaming”; “Hustlers”

-Max

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30 comments:

  1. "wreck the DJ, which actually sounds *more* painful than outright homicide..."

    I disagreed with a few points here and there...I really like "Blunt Ashes," think the title track is the better version of the sample...I like Play On Playa, especially how it samples the intro from that one Ice Cube song back when he was actually great.

    And as a side note "Still Dreamin'" is my favorite song on this album, and the best Nas song in probably the last nine (oops, ten now) years.

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  2. this album is garbage , no question , nearly 20 years in the game and one great album (illmatic)

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  3. No hate mail here...Your on the money with this one.
    This albums is average at best.

    Oh BTW Who Killed It? is amazing!

    Tnx Max.

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  4. I am a huge Nas fan, and if anything, I feel you were too easy on this album. Thankfully Untitled is a large improvement over this piffle. I do also enjoy Chrisete Michelle though.

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  5. How can anyone not love 'Money Over Bullshit'? The hardest post-2K song Nas has put out. Plus it makes me want to stab the skinny jeans-wearing high-school kid next to me on the bus whenever it plays on my iPod. At least you liked 'Who Killed It?'.

    I like this album, but it did get kinda tiresome during the second half I'll admit. It wasn't bad though. Dunno how you can say burn this but buy Kingdom Come.
    Ah well, can't please everyone. Happy new year Max, and enjoy your break.

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  6. Imaking6004January 01, 2011

    Great Review, also a Nas fan, I agree that this album was trash too save for a few songs that you mentioned esp. Still Dreaming. Although Max, you should really start looking Blu and review his collab albums with Exile and Mainframe

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  7. I guess I am the only one to disagree. I found this album entertaining for the very same reason you trashed it - its just another Nas album. So it has things you expect from the escobar - polished delivery, storytelling skills, lyricism, sticking to the fuckin topic and having something new to say [as compared to the usual gangster, money, braggadocio, girls stuff]. And like you said, every Nas album has a some awesome really fuckin good songs. Should one expect more? yea, but the good stuff still compensates for the rest. fav songs - black republicans, carry on tradition, hold down the block.

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  8. "costing on laurels"...and not rabidly hungry enough to consistently think about smacking shit out the park everytime... step back from the mic and rediscover that fan's ear that you had that made you fall in love with the shit in the first place...

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  9. If you oppose censorship how come you never write 'nigga'?

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  10. It would be censorship if he didn't post your comment due to your saying the word, or altered your comment to change the word in some way; not if he refuses to write it himself.

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  11. MAX PLEASE REVIEW NECRO - DIE! OR A ILL BILL ALBUM OR EVEN A IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE ALBUM


    I REPEAT NECRO - DIE! YOU ALL CHECK HIM OUT SHITS DOPE

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  12. Cool review. This album is my no means classic. In `I remember walking out of a record shop with
    "No More Mr. Nice Guy"
    "Done By The Forces Of Nature"
    "Back To Wreck Shop"
    "Road To The Riches"
    "3 Feet High And Rising"
    All new releases! Classic albums that you could listen to all the way through.
    I wait for times like that to make a comeback.

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  13. For Mike:

    I've also never seen it uncensored in the Reader Reviews.


    Just a point of interest for me.

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  14. Good point Mr. Anonymous, makes me wonder what Max thinks about this whole Huckleberry Finn debacle (which I find moronic.)

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  15. The Huckleberry Finn controversy is bullshit.

    That said, I made a personal choice not to write the word, and I tend to also remove it from Reader Reviews because it's still my blog. (I've also done this to other racial slurs, but since those don't come up as frequently, it's easy to overlook.) I don't personally agree with the justification that most rappers have used in re-appropriating the word: I still think of it as shock value for shock value's sake, as most of these "artists" out there today could give two fucks about the historical significance of the word and its origins; they just use it because that's all they know to do with it, and that doesn't make it right.

    However, I realize that this course of action may be a bit hypocritical, considering my stance on censorship otherwise, and as such, I *may* change how I edit the contributions in the future.

    However, any Reader Review submissions that go overboard with the n-word won't ever see the light of day. I'm okay with publishing the word within the text of the blog if it is included as part of an album title or a song's lyrics, but not under any other circumstance. Just putting that out there.

    I personally won't be changing how I choose to address this. Still my blog, after all.

    Thanks for reading!

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  16. Sonds good. If it's a title or lyric I understand it, but there is no need to put the n-word in their otherwise. I personaly had no need to put it in my reader review as it's four white guys, but if it's a song title or lyric I feel it's alright. Censorship isn't the same as choosing not to say/type a word.

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  17. you're a funny man
    Please review Wise Intelligent and Immortal Technique.

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  18. I hate Tech's music, but it should make for a good review. He has terrible breath control and his opinions are that are a wannabe punk who wants to be "cool" and "hardcore".

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  19. yo man, do you plan to review premier's" get used to us" compilation soon?peace

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  20. wtf man..tired of comming here and seeing Nas face... max where u at ?

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  21. its the last review... blog's name is hip hop isnt dead so hip hop is dead must be the last review because Max finally accepted that Hip Hop Is Dead... ha!

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  22. @ the last anonymous - that would be pretty appropriate, but no. The project didn't influence the blog, just its title, and there are a lot more albums out there fighting the good fight.

    @ the previous anonymous - um, did you not read the previous post where I explained that I was going on hiatus for a bit? Seriously? I almost want to extend my vacation just to spite your comment.

    Thanks for reading!

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  23. "almost"..yeh...right, you know you need this ish...

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  24. I don't know...I could easily extend my hiatus for another couple of weeks...kind of interesting to listen to music for fun again...

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  25. I'd rather have Max back writing because he wants to, oppose to have him writing because of the readers growing impatient. Plus the back catalogue is keeping me plenty entertained, dope site glad to have come across it.

    Peace .. from what must be atleast the dozenth reader by now haha

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  26. This is a dope selection. They're pretty fresh. Your posts are always quality, Keep Up the Good Work HHID. Liking how tight your site is too.

    --
    www.keepup.com.au
    Australia's most up to date urban website for music,clubs,events and news

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  27. My one month of staying away from HHID is over now and as I came back to see things, it seems that not much has happened and I haven't missed out on anything important at all. I personally like this album more than you did but I rarely listen to most Nas stuff besides "Illmatic".

    I really hope I can finally see some of my requests fulfilled in 2011, Max. As for now, if you getting to the requests comes faster by a long hiatus, then I'm down with it cause you writing a review on something I could give a fuck less about is no different than seeing Nas' face for three weeks (and more) straight by each visit.

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  28. you said a week or 2, not 3 or more man. i really just dont want to see nas' face, ugly motherfucker

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  29. Stop moaning.

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  30. He was just right about that five years ago..

    But actually it happened 10 years ago before this title.

    And that's it.

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