Everyone knows Nas is arguably the best to ever touch a mic; A common complaint however, is that his discography is not the best outside of Illmatic, It Was Written, and even the recent Hit-Boy collabs (depending on who you ask). One very slept on project of his is 2006’s Hip-Hop is Dead. Often shrugged off with his other projects of that era, it is actually a really strong listen from and one of his better outings.
Attracting some controversy with the inflammatory title, Nas is often misinterpreted here. Many assume he was on some old head shit and continuing the perennial East / South beef (especially with artists like Lil Jon, Jeezy, and Lil Wayne at the peak of their popularity), and while he certainly touches on that here, it’s not the core of his message. As he stated in an interview with MTV, “When I say ‘hip-hop is dead’, basically America is dead… We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say”. Hip-hop is something we live; A valuable tool and representation of marginalized people, we cannot let the genre be ruled by out of touch, greedy labels, or diminished to club music.
Check, let there be light
No gang bangin’ in New York tonight
Just murals of Biggie Smalls, bigger than life
Turn up the kid mic cause yall ain’t listening right
What’s all this talk that Nas got bought?
I’d rather outline my body in white chalk
The album kicks off with “Money Over Bullshit” which sets the tone for the album in plain terms. Over a dark, constantly evolving boombap beat courtesty of LES, Nas bars out like never before. Spitting nonstop shit talk bars, almost battle rap style, and reminding everyone that he’s pretty much untouchable in the rap game. “Carry On Tradition” and “Where Are They Now”, produced by Scott Storch and Salaam Remi respectively, are where Nas does delve a bit into that superior New York old head mentality, but he pulls it off well enough. With production which is simultaneously very much of its time, yet so fitting for the pissed off tone, he drops some wisdom with clever lines and technical mastery. If there’s anyone who has a right to talk about the rap game slacking, its the GOAT. Later on however, there is the track “Who Killed It”; This one doesn’t go over so well as Nas puts on a corny detective’s accent and is too on the nose with it. “Dr. Carter” this is not.
Nas – Hip Hop Is Dead ft. will.i.am
The middle run of the album is among Nas’ best modern work. The title track, produced by will.i.am, is a bonafide hit; Over an electric guitar riff, Nas flows double time and taps into themes such as the corruption of the record industry and hiphop losing its spirit. Its easily one of his best sonic appearances ever, and when you actually think about what he’s saying rather than assuming its an old man yelling at the clouds, is very apt. There’s also “Black Republican”, one of the highly sought after collabs with fellow King of NY, Jay-Z. With an epic orchestral sample, the two legends speak on becoming such influential, wealthy figures and how that works translates with their rough come ups.
Hip-hop is Dead also features a couple of forgotten but top tier Kanye beats. “Still Dreaming” has a beautiful little soul sample and Spanish guitar, while “Let There Be Light” is highlighted by an epic Tre Williams hook and such emotion from Nas as he shows love for his city and the culture. “Can’t Forget About You” is similar thematically and also has a standout hook. Meanwhile, “Hustlers” features frequent collaborator The Game and a Dr Dre beat, giving Nas a chance to put on for his West Coast brothers. It all wraps up with “Hope”, an a capella joint that encourages the people to fight for the justice and the culture.
Overall, Hip-hop is Dead might get a bad rep given its place in Nas’ discography and some old head sentiments, but its actually one of his better projects. With all star production and hungry bars from an OG, its a really underrated record.