Hip Hop is Dead

(Def Jam; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 8 November 2007

About a month ago Nas and Jay-Z performed "Hip Hop Is Dead" on BET, Def Jam prince playing a poor/rich hype-man to his newest acquisition, all rivalries consolidated and sold. Nas sputtered in the second verse and recovered barely enough momentum to see the song through to its end; as a result, BET's throng needed Jay to tell them to make some noise before they resorted to a golf clap. Shit would be troubling if it didn't inspire so much indifference. The song itself is rote, the inescapable rehashing the same Iron Butterfly sample that drove the far superior "Thief's Theme." Nas' titular lyricism is the expected mix of nostalgia, self-righteousness, and scene hating, and of course all of that's rendered ineffectual and ironic by a BET stage and a BEP beat. At least the Pumpkins' acknowledged what all this rage amounts to.

Read any interview with Nasir about his latest and see if you get a clear idea of what "Hip Hop Is Dead" represents outside of a declarative sentence meant to sell units through the most inane of controversies. Nas paints hip hop as he knows it, but it's not hip hop that's dead -- here it's his rendering of it that pales for lack of life or freshness. The rhyme schemes, the topic matter, and the beats from "Carry on Tradition" to "Not Going Back" to "Blunt Ashes" are dead and done, especially in Nasty's personal canon. What's the point of making an album that tells us what we're listening to could mean something if circumstances were different, even though circumstances aren't different? Nas laments the hip hop times, but it's a jeremiad without poetry. He just says it and says it until the listener's trying to swallow the bitter lump of resignation at the heart of this record, as blatant and guileless as the album's cover.

Which isn't to say that Nas isn't a great rapper on Hip Hop Is Dead. Nas will always be great, always a complete natural, but also addled and tired. His luck condensed on Illmatic (1994), and just the very strain of living in the shadow of that inauguration has left a career perpetually testifying to his talent while perpetually failing to eclipse his potential. Nas himself can't have the slightest idea how to surpass or match his own ghost. On every release he grapples with his own ability, stumbles, and falls into the excuse of releasing something that was "different" from before, when any significant difference is mostly nullified by each record bearing the mark of belonging to a cycle of shortcomings. And Nas' flow and rhyme construction is a slave to its own immutability when it can't possibly get any more perfect than "Halftime" or "One Love." When he pushes into some new territory, it's usually a train wreck like "Who Killed It?" I mean, just because one can rap a whole track as a mobster movie detective, and just because that seems like something untouched, does that mean one should? Everyone instinctively knows the answer to this question. Except, apparently, Escobar.

The myth of Nas curses him, and it goes beyond simply failing to live up to a classic debut. That criticism's plagued him since forever. If there's anything to be gleaned from Hip Hop Is Dead, then it's what its meta says so profoundly about the true nature of its maker's legend. For Nas, hip hop truly is dead, but that's because his auteur conception of hip hop, the individual life that he bestowed hip hop, was born, actualized, and epitomized with his very first record. Nas saw what his hip hop could be and immediately took us there. But there are other hip hops, and though they aren't Nas', and most of them aren't nearly as good, they're still alive because they still have futures.

"Who Killed It?" You killed it, Nas. Beautifully and absolutely, you killed it. It's just too bad that that means the aftermath feels so redundant and pointless. Nas always has those tracks (like "Made You Look" or its successor "Where Y'All At," cut from this album) where he makes us believe that a complete resurrection is possible. Of course, such an effort would have to be superhuman. The inverse with Hip Hop Is Dead is that every little failing, every lazy rap or Scott Storch beat or Snoop Dogg guest spot, is damning. It's a half-hearted, self-desecrated memorial, and it may end with "Hope," but like all of the record's messages, it's a hope stated, not experienced. As Nas says in the end, "I say what I say. I say what I say. This shit is real, bitch. This shit is real, bitch." Hip Hop Is Dead's fruitless and one-dimensional rhetoric is sure to depress the Nas fan more than any of his didactics.