CD Review: Nas’ latest disc hopeful, doesn’t live up to 1994 debut

By Eric Baumann

First and foremost, Hip Hop Is Dead is not Illmatic, Nas’ critically acclaimed debut album. That said, the climate of hip-hop today is a far cry from what it was 13 years ago.

In 1994 it was about substance over style, about the story, the struggle and the art of rhyme. MCs from that era attacked the mic, unloading everything and anything on their minds. It was that commitment, that energy and that passion that Nas’s brand of hip-hop was a part of.

Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, is a lyricist. He is a writer and his messages are found between the lines. The listener needs to think and care about the art, the message and where the music came from, or they will never get what he is saying.

Since 1994, Nas has continued to produce less and less meaningful work. Over the course of his eight-album career, he seems to be getting progressively lazier and more bored with hip-hop. There are several possible explanations for this, but none more likely than that he is simply resting on his laurels.

Nas’s Illmatic made a strong impact on the hip-hop game, and his subsequent releases never lived up to the promise his debut album created.

The past 13 years were essentially a dead period in Nas’ career – a period that comes to a close with the release of his eighth studio album, Hip Hop is Dead. This album marks the beginning of a Nas comeback.

He is trying again, he is pushing himself and he is attacking the mic with the same ferocity that got him recognized more than a decade ago.

If the album title shocks you, good. It should. Hip-hop is not dead because Nas stopped caring. Some say it’s dead, or dying, because not enough people care. Nas is telling his fanbase that real hip-hop is more complex than 50 Cent’s or Lil’ Jon’s newest MTV-ready singles. He is asking fans to care again, and start thinking when they listen instead of just consuming the music. The survival of true hip-hop depends on it.

The album itself has a solid group of quality tracks with good, but not always great, beats. Verses from Nas and other big-name collaborators like Jay-Z, Kanye West and The Game flow perfectly through just about all but one produced track titled “Who Killed It?” This is a goofy, uninspired song that doesn’t deserve a place on the album – imagine Chief Wiggum rapping.

Thank goodness, that monstrosity is followed by one of the album’s strongest songs, “Black Republican,” featuring the highly anticipated “dream team duet” between Nas and Jay-Z.

What has always set Nas apart from the pack is his method – the meaning behind his words. While most artists, in every genre of music, are constantly saying what is on their mind, few have ever been able to take it one step further. To grab the listener’s attention and hold it, from beginning to end – that is Nas’ gift. When he lays into the mic, he is getting the words off his chest, with an intensity that makes his audience listen.

On a “Nas scale,” Hip Hop Is Dead is deserving of attention, but not necessarily worth the acclaim of his Illmatic masterpiece. Bottom line, Nas is back, and he is adding his trademark energy to a hip-hop game whose pulse has been slowing.

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