Leave it to Nas, the audacious savior who wears his contradictions on his sleeve, to name a hip-hop album Hip-Hop is Dead. Like its creator, Nas’s eighth all-new LP is constantly at odds with itself. It’s focused but messy, ambitiously stuck in the past, simultaneously Nas’s greatest failure and most uneven triumph. Though he seems destined to fall into the same mistakes over and over, there are plenty of firsts on Jay-Z’s Def Jam’s Nas record, not the least of which is that fated collaboration. Almost equally anticipated, Kanye West finally lends his beats to a Nas LP, and the results are inspired, particularly on “Let There Be Light,” which would have made a great closer.
But that’s Nas, always intent on awkward ordering, constantly wasting spectacular lines on average beats (after showing a talented side on the new Game record, Scott Storch is back to his usual tired self here), and far too often mistaking watered-down hooks for commercial potential. Fortunately, Hip-Hop Is Dead also brings out the best in the emcee, who might have produced his strongest lyrical performance since Illmatic. And the production has its own moments, like three great offerings from Will.i.am, especially the ghostly highlight “Can’t Forget About You,” and a nearly uniformly impressive showing from long-time collaborator L.E.S.
Even ignoring the usual complaints from Nas detractors, Hip-Hop Is Dead is undoubtedly a decisive listen, partially for its vague statements and closing a cappella track, but mostly due to “Who Killed It?” It’s a bizarre experiment in noir-ish investigation that could be the most interesting song on the record or the worst track ever recorded, depending on the message board you’ve been trolling. On any other record, the song would be a bizarre experiment, a hate-it-or-love-it affair that would casually be forgotten. Here it’s fascinating, not just because the beat sways and floats like it should, but because Nas infuses his rhymes with countless references and skillful flips. It’s imperfect and teeters on disaster, yet incredibly manages to fit snugly into the half-time slot.
But what might be most remarkable about Hip-Hop is Dead (and seemingly unnoticed over the past month) is the absence of self-referential material. For an artist who quoted half of his debut on its follow-up, named one record I Am and another the first two words he ever spoke on record, Nas has quite clearly moved on, not to the future, but to someone else’s past. “Where Are They Now” mentions tons of old-school artists over — what else — a James Brown sample, while “Blunt Ashes,” produced by a competent Chris Webber, sees Nas referencing everything from Zapp’s murder-suicide ending to Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win.
His respect for history (he even calls one song “Carry on Tradition”) is clear, though what is foggier is his disdain for the present. Really just one more statement in the long tradition of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’96,” Hip-Hop Is Dead may only stand out because, well, at least Common and Shadow saw a way out; Nas is asking for nothing less than resurrection … or is it just Endtroducing? Perhaps it means more now, though: Consider that Common made Ice Cube upset, while the only person around to defend hip-hop these days is Young Jeezy, blindly and clumsily defending his career, then just as quickly stepping back from the only conversation that could have saved a tired genre.
Then again, apart from incendiary sloganeering, what exactly Nas does to confront the problem here is totally subjective. The self-named “God’s son” doesn’t seem intent on saving anyone, but instead resigned to his own corner: Did he know that he was preceding his Jay-Z collab with the phrase “Hip-hop is so fucking dead” being spit out by a Mac voice? It gives “Black Republican” added mystique: He’s either a veteran announcing a new era or the tired fighter, giving in to the overwhelming pummeling from the genre he loved. He doesn’t seem to want his listeners to be sure, but it’s the honest and complex work of art he produced here that, at least in terms of subjective quality, makes it matter little. Hip-hop has always been influenced by cinematic devices and traditions, from the Scarface and Warriors references to the sequels and concept records that stud nearly every major rapper’s career. What’s often been left out is the ambiguity that film and music allows, the refusal to spoon-feed the audience. Ambition in hip-hop records usually means unusual production or marathon track listings, but Hip-Hop Is Dead is an ambitious record of another kind: a record asking you to reconsider your conceptions of its artist and its genre. Inevitably, the record is far from perfect, but music doesn’t have to find everything in its right place. At times, it even demands conflict, and considering the state of his career and the industry that spawned him, Nas is right on schedule.