One of the greatest MCs to ever pick up a microphone, Nas has watched as his beloved hip-hop has gone from its innocent days of B-Boy battles and lyrical sport to today's fake-thug posturing and commercial excesses, and he's got something to say about it. Throughout his storied career – which began with 1994's classic Illmatic and has spanned the last decade with over 12 million albums sold – Nas has been more than just the genre's foremost lyricist and thinker. He has become a statesman, some would argue hip-hop's "conscience."
"What I mean by 'hip-hop is dead' is we're at a vulnerable state," Nas recently told MTV News. "If we don't change, we gonna disappear like Rome. Let's break it down to a smaller situation. Hip-hop is Rome for the 'hood. I think hip-hop could help rebuild America… We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say."
Nas keeps it vital from jump. On "Q.B. True G," featuring Compton's The Game, the two MCs trade verses over a vicious Dr. Dre beat; the student pays homage to the teacher, remembering standing on line to cop Illmatic. On the Nas-produced "Where Are They Now," Nas runs through a litany of classic, bygone MCs over a monster James Brown sample. "Still Dreamin'" features a soul-heavy beat and hook from Kanye West. Elsewhere, Snoop Dogg shows up on the west-coast tinged "Play On Player."
Will.I.Am productions show up twice on the album: the title track, "Hip Hop Is Dead" is set to a heavy rock beat interspersed with old-school breaks and showcases some of Nas' most dexterous mic work in years. "Unforgettable," featuring Def Jam songstress Chrisette Michele, riffs off a Nat King Cole sample, with Nas' looking forward to the golden years, while looking back on his past: "When was the last time you heard a true anthem/Nas, the millionaire, the mansion/When was the last time you heard your boy Nas rhyme/Never on schedule, but always on time."
Finally, Nas brings an uncompromising political stance on "White Man's Paper (War)" featuring Damien Marley. Set to a throbbing Bob Marley sample, Nas flirts with controversy, chanting: "I get my news from that white man's paper/So I get my views from that white man's paper/ My people act a fool for that white man's paper/And I don't think it's cool, Fuck that white man's paper/ No books in our school cuz that white man's paper, Is droppin' cruise missiles on the head of our neighbors/And I'm like why?"
The tones and themes throughout Hip-Hop Is Dead should be familiar to Nas fans: defiance and wisdom, mourning and hope. However, his perspective, focus and intensity have changed. There is a new sense of urgency in Nas' pleas for change.
"When I say 'hip-hop is dead,' basically America is dead," Nas continues. "There is no political voice. Music is dead. Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done. That's where we are as a country."
Hip-Hop Is Dead, and the remarkable circumstance leading up to its creation, marks a new passage in Nas' story. While the past is certainly gone, and the present is constantly changing, with a new label and an incredible new album, Nas' future is an open page, waiting to be written.