In recent years, critics, fans and artists alike have lamented the turning tide in hip hop. It is commercially successful, it is the voice of a generation and it is the world's music—all positive things. But, despite its diverse audience, it often seems like the artists themselves are not as diverse. How often have we read this bio: said emcee was raised in the projects, hustled drugs to make ends meet, got shot, learned his life lesson and pursued music as an alternative? How many times can we hear about rim size, candy paint, big booties and pushing weight? How many more rap videos will be shot around a pool filled with half-naked women? Hip hop can make you dance, yes. But can it make you think? What happened to the days when rappers had distinctly different personalities and styles? Has hip hop just become a parody of itself?
These are the kinds of questions up for debate on the Nas' newest album Hip Hop is Dead. And who better to stir up debate than the man most consider one of the top five emcees in the history of the game? From his brilliant 1994 debut Illmatic, to his mainstream success with It Was Written, to anthems like "Hate Me Now" and "One Mic" and his venomous lyricism on "Ether," Nas' ability to tell stories, educate, make you dance—and make you look—is the stuff of rap legend.
And while Nas might enjoy the finer things in life like all of us, he's not afraid to tackle subjects like self-empowerment, love, the importance of education and being aware of world issues. Musically, he'll get down and dirty with DJ Premier, ride an R&B beat with Trackmasters or bridge the gap jazz-style with his pops Olu Dara. It is this artistic diversity that Nas hopes will influence the next generation of emcees. "There's so many cocaine dealing rappers and so-called selling drug niggas," Nas says, exasperatedly, "I'm like where ya'll selling this at? People don't know there's so much more you can talk about."
Enter Hip Hop is Dead. The seventh studio album for the kid, it is a chance for Nas to expound on the state of his beloved hip hop. The searing title track, produced by Will.i.Am, sets up Nas' worst nightmare—that hip hop is erased from the earth. It is an indictment and warning to all the labels and fans and DJs who are complacent and not challenging the art form. Without being preachy or jaded, Nas also takes a trip down Memory Lane to reminisce about his love for hip hop in "Can't Forget About You", a jazz inspired track from Will.i.Am. Nas says the song, which features a touch of the classic "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole, inspired him because of its evergreen relevance. "People who are 70, 80 years old know it and people who are 7 years old can get to know it, so it was just right up my alley. It was one of those stellar moments."
Nas also hooked up with a number of West Coast pioneers. For "QB OG", Nas reunited with his Firm biz partner, Dr. Dre and is joined on the track by the latest West Coast phenom, The Game. Bigging up both Queens and Compton, Nas and Game's voices meld so perfectly, you'd think they'd been rhyming together for years. "Play on Player" finds Nas relaxing Cali style alongside Snoop on a melodic track by Scott Storch. "I wanted to do stuff like a record with Snoop, bridge that gap with East Coast and West like on such a level you know? I wanted to do the things that I did on this record just to do something different from my last record, stuff I've never done and stuff I wanted to do."
One of the most anticipated and talked about tracks on the album is "Black Republican," the first ever collabo with Nas' former rival Jay-Z. Produced by one of Nas' longtime beatmasters, L.E. S., the track is anthemic, authoritative and everything fans have hoped to hear. About the union, Nas says with a smile, "This is Ali and Frazier, this is Ali and Foreman, this is Ali and Ali, you know?"
With Hip Hop is Dead, Nas has once again challenged the sonic norms, experimented with an eclectic group of producers and collaborated with artists that he's never worked with before. He plays the "black militant" on "Black Republican" the nostalgic sage on "Can't Forget About You" and the inspirational teacher on Kanye West's track, "Let There be Light," and still gets down with "Brazilian dimes" on Hip Hop is Dead. Some might say he's unfocused, but in reality, he's showing us just how diverse rap can be.
And that hip hop is still very much alive.