February 1, 2007

Nas Haunts the Limelight

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If Hip Hop is dead, Nas is an undying ghost igniting the spirits of the past. Nas’ latest release Hip Hop Is Dead is packed with old school beats, intelligent/passionate flow and even new unconventionality. Leaving Illmatic in the dust, Nas takes a step forward with his newest effort — no matter how morbid his album title may seem.

As Nas gives his record the most audacious album title of 2006, he at once mourns the death of his own art form while creating the most solid and enjoyable hip hop album of the year — all while pushing himself fervently into the limelight. Is it a publicity stunt? Or is it a stream of consciousness and over the top angered rant — a type of expression rap MC’s seem to embrace? Whatever the rhyme or reason, it is cocky. It is also arrogant and pretentious. The record, nonetheless, is incredible.

The first six tracks of the record are the story of Hip Hop’s death: the eulogy, search for a murderer, motive and weapon and finally the trial and sentence of the guilty. The first song, “Money Over Bullsh*t” thunders from the stereo with a heavy bass drum, snare, symphonic strings and piano. The beat comes hard and heavy as Nas haunts the track after only four bars. From the first track, it is clear that the title must be a lie: Hip Hop is alive and here.

By the third song, “Carry on Tradition” Nas starts to explain how and why Hip Hop died. An old school beat suits the song title well. Nas’ typical shoddy but inspiring historical and political references constitute the first verse of this song.

The second verse, however, reaches one of Nas’ lyrical highlights as he says, “Now some of these new rappers got their caps flipped backwards/ with their fingers intertwined in some gang sign madness/ I’ve got an exam/ let’s see if y’all pass it/ let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest.” Apparently, cocky works, and Nas is the king rooster in the pen.
It may be the very demise Nas mourns that he channels as creative inspiration on this record. Sometimes struggle, hardship and even death inspire art. Nas is no new comer to this theme. His 2002 single “I Can” speaks to the struggle of children becoming all they can be. If this is Nas’ source, then I want to know once and for all if it is true: is Hip Hop really dead?

The second half of the record is packed with guest appearances. Among these are Kanye West and will.i.am. Although Kanye has been producing records for years, it was only in 2004 with the release of College Dropout that Kanye reached triple platinum, multi-Grammy success. In fact, with super hits like “Jesus Walks,” and 2005’s “Gold Digger” Mr. West recharged Hip Hop and his production helped redefine the genre forever. Similarly, will.i.am has been in the music game for some years, however it is only with his group the Black Eyed Peas’ 2003 release Elephunk that will.i.am reached such astronomical fame. The Black Eyed Peas’ success in 2003 once again helped change the face of Hip Hop. It seems that Hip Hop is still alive. Maybe Hip Hop is just changing.

Within the spectrum of all new music, some of the most celebrated albums of last year were born from the genre of Hip Hop. Clipse and T.I. both put out superb albums in 2006. Even Jay-Z released a killer album. In fact, the celebrated Hip Hop producer and rapper Timbaland, produced one of the most surprising and triumphant records of 2006, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex / Love Sounds. Finally, the most outstanding single of last year was, without a doubt, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — created by Hip Hop producer Danger Mouse, and rapper Cee-Lo. All of this greatness has spawned from the declared deceased by Mr. Nasir Jones.

Upon reflection, if Hip Hop is dead or alive, it does not really matter. If Nas needs something to complain about to make a great record, so be it. I was getting sick of bands whining about Bush anyways.

But Nas’ struggle seems deeper; it somehow seems to come from his soul. Musically, Hip Hop Is Dead is a superb record. The soul-gospel number, “Let There Be Light” featuring Tre Williams, which strays from the title theme is just as good as the title track. The production is solid but it is Nas’ raps that make this record fresh and exciting.

The final song on the record is called “Hope” and is rapped a cappella — Hip Hop stripped to its purest form, poetry. Followed by Chrisette Michelle singing a soulful almost angelic intro, “Hip Hop will never, never die,” Nas comes full force with his final plea and struggle to save Hip Hop. He raps, “Ain’t got nothing to do with Old School, New School, Dirty South, West Coast, East Coast — this is about us. This is our thing. Do you know what I’m saying? This came from the gut. From the blood. From the soul.” Wherever it is, and wherever it’s going, Nas has something to say. And he proves that no matter where Hip Hop goes, he is here to stay.