Rework the Angles: Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead”

The Bourbomber re-envisions Mr. Jones' lackluster album by adding some loosies and rare cuts from the era
By    March 5, 2015

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“Everyone’s been on the ‘hip hop is dead’ campaign for years, and now it’s the most unsure of itself genre ever. Everyone is like “is it dead? I don’t know! It might be dead!” I kept getting asked by magazines “Is hip hop dead?” It’s like you realize you’re just promoting Nas’ album, right?”
Aesop Rock, 2008


As I said in the last post on Street’s Disciple, Hip Hop is Dead is the orginal rap trending topic. For a forgettable album, people brought up the “So do you think hip hop is dead?” question in almost every interview with rappers much longer longer than the album from Nas remained in anyone’s CD changer. It was a clever marketing decision by Nas and Def Jam, a “statement” formula that would clumsily be re-used on his painful follow-up Untitled.

Hip Hop is Dead is a bleak album, sad and aggressive, nostalgic once again for the golden era of rap and completely disgusted with the current climate of his peers. Back in 2006, Nas was getting married to Kelis, trading shots with 50 Cent and Dipset, and squashing his near decade-long beef with Jay-Z. With that in mind, I’ve spent a lot of time listening and arranging it to find a central story or theme, and the best I could surmise was that Hip Hop is Dead is really just Street’s Disciple Part 2. Outside of odd beat choices from Dr. Dre, Scott Storch, Stargate, and Chris Webber, HHID regurgitates the strengths of Street’s Disciple’s best cuts: Looking backwards at 20 years of history, from pop culture to hip-hop, to New York and the endless chase for rap supremacy.

Nas was never good at being juvenile–at 19, he was just as profound as any rapper in their 30’s. In 2006, Nas was 32, a grown-up in an industry of youth, and he spends quite a few bars chastising the younger artists for their marketing strategies (fake beefs), clothing choices, and lack of hip-hop knowledge. He lashes at his foes on “Money Over Bullshit” and Where Y’all At” while revering ’80s hip-hop one-hit wonders on “Where Are They Now?” and Mike Tyson and Motown 25 on “Can’t Forget About You.”

This album fortifies Nas as an artist who wouldn’t be chasing the radio anymore (quick–name the first single from this album). His work with the hot beatmakers of the time yielded no dancefloor smashes. The most memorable joints (beyond the infamous CHris Webber beat placement) “Black Republican” with Hov, and “Hip Hop is Dead,” which famously re-flipped “Thief’s Theme,” rarely get mentioned in the pantheon of great Nas records. Hip Hop is Dead is not a good album–I had to dig around for outtakes and bonus songs just to make it to 12 cuts. There are bright spots: Two beats from post-Late Registration Kanye, three guest appearances from the underrated Chrisette Michele, plenty of call backs to hip-hop classics, and some of his best storytelling ever. HHID fails as a war cry but is great as a continuation of Street’s Disciple. You find a man who is settling in to the life of an aging superstar with no interests on remaining current, trendy, or flexible. HHID is rebellious. — Zilla Rocca


Track 1: “Money Over Bullshit” prod. by L.E.S. and Wyldfyer


“Money Over Bullshit” is next to “The Message,” “Get Down,” and “NY State of Mind” as one of Nas’s best openers. This picks up where “Nazareth Savage” left off on Street’s Disciple with a nice jab at Jim Jones: “Put a barrel in a capo mouth, ’til his scalp come out, you a kid you don’t live what you rap about.” Nas is blessed with the gift of absorbing so much hate, criticism and disses, and then responding with blood and ash on his albums. It’s like he keeps a checklist of every slight thrown his way between albums and compiles them for songs like this. WHy else would the hook be “Afraid not of none of you cowards but of my own strength?” Nas shows restrain, and the utter devastation.



Track 2: “Serious” feat. AZ prod. by Salaam Remi


“Serious” has floated around on white labels and mixtapes for years. It dropped out of nowhere in 2005, so it’s safe to assume it was scrapped from Street’s Disciple due to the Incredible Bongo Band sample. Because HHID is the continuation of SD, I added it to this version of the album. Thematically, Nas anoints himself as Defender of the Real Hip-Hop: “Sped up or real slow, never neo-soul, hip-hop only, rockin’ with homie, we Co-D’s, not Joss Stone, Hives or Coldplay . . .” It’s hard to quote more lyrics from this song because Anthony Cruz and Nasir Jones stab the track with both hands.



“Where Y’all At” prod. by Salaam Remi


Built from a devastating Minnie Riperton sample, “Where Y’all At” was a promo song for the album (that somehow didn’t make the album) in the vein of “Made U Look” and Thief’s Theme. Salaam Remi needs to get more credit as an all-time great hip hop producer – his catalogue is mean, and when he laces Nas with beats like this (which isn’t too often), it’s jawdropping. This song is Nas at his most elegant, a trait he’s rarely praised for as a writer. “I slow dance with the devil, snow sitting in the bezel, mo sippin’, Phantom, bumping Aaron Neville.”



Track 4: “Where Are They Now” prod. by Nas & Salaam Remi


“Where Are They Now” is a salute to rappers that meant something to a Queensbridge kid with a boombox in the ‘80s, so while Nas is burying the genre on the cover of the album, he is paying his respects to his heroes. Like me, Nas is a Virgo, and Virgo’s love making lists. “Where Are They Now” is a list song, something that fellow Virgo Ludacris excels at making. Granted, Luda’s list songs are about places he’s had sex (“Area Codes,” “What’s Your Fantasy”), so when Nas makes a list song, it’s about forgotten acts like Sylk Times Leather, Ill Al Skratch, and Redhead Kingpin. This song was written in 2006 but could be about J-Zone’s Twitter feed today or Up North Trips



Track 5: “The N (Don’t Hate Me Now) Remix” prod. by Salaam Remi


This cut was on the import version of the album. I’m including this rare remix instead of the LP version since it bounces off “Where Are They Now” much better. Nas bucks at Dipset twice: “Bitches want my chipped tooth back, steel mac so my kufi never gets smacked” and “I’ll kill y’all for spitting songs that involve me n****, original verbal assassin, have to carve me a n****”). “The N” is a call back to “Hate Me Now” off I Am, but rather than flaunt red leather jumpsuits and polar bear hatwear, Nas is “still getting it but don’t even love the doe.”



Track 6: “Carry on Tradition” prod. by Scott Storch


Def Jam was probably ecstatic to get Scott Storch on this album in 2006. By this point, Nas was allergic to the catchy single, and consistently used hot beatmakers to churn out album cuts. “Carry on Tradition” is a pseudo Aftermath/G-Unit beat, with the word “MESSAGE!” spelled out in Super Bowl halftime pyrotechnics. Nas is on his Gran Torino shit, chastising old vets and newcomers for having no class nor integrity in the realm of hip-hop. A man gotta live by a code while firing subliminals at 50 Cent: “Carry on tradition, fuck a bum wack rapper making his career outta dissing.”



Track 7: “Black Republican” feat Jay-Z prod by L.E.S. & Wyldfyer


Jay-Z got “Success”and Nas got “Black Republican,” a pretty shitty trade when you look back. “Black Republican” failed as the Event Record–it’s just a good album cut when you remove the historical importance of it. Lyrically, it never gives you the goosebumps. The Godfather II sample is serviceable. I put it after “Carry on Tradition” as a statement: Nas and Jay are at the top of the game. They’ve resolved their difference and have carried on correctly. Nas did kill Jay with that Nike jacket though


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Track 8: “Can’t Forget About You” feat. Chrisette Michelle prod. by will.i.am.


There was a strange time in the mid-00’s when major label acts like Nas and Common had to work with will.i.am to please the labels. In return, will.i.am made glossier versions of beats that Q-Tip, Premier, Large Pro, and Pete Rock could pump out. He was the Commercially Viable Real Hip-Hop Head, and “Can’t Forget About You” shows his hand: the Large Pro sleigh bells, the “Big Beat” drum kit, and the keyboard DJ scratches. As a single, “Can’t Forget About You” was decent–it did more to promote Chrisette Michelle than set the world on fire for Nas. Thematically, “Can’t Forget About You” is dripping in nostalgia, from the Nat King Cole sample to the multiple 1980’s rap references and the line about Mr. T becoming a wrestler.



Track 9: “The World” feat. Tony Williams prod. by Kanye West


This is the first tender song on the album where Nas shares his humanity. “The World” was cut from the album; it doesn’t fit the narrative of HHID. It’s beautiful song though–minimal Rhodes melody a la Jon Brion and Gil Scott-Heron on the hook. Kanye left the track empty to focus on Nas’ story about stealing a single mother away from her man and building a relationship with her son. This is the kind of song women would love hearing on their way to work.


 


Track 10: “Still Dreaming” feat. Kanye West and Chrisette Michelle prod. by Kanye West


Between “The World,” “Still Dreaming,” “We Major” off Late Registration, “Poppa Was a Player” off Lost Tapes, and frickin’ “Turn It Off” from Jermaine Dupri’s Life in 1472, someone at Def Jam or GOOD Music needs to be fired: How has there never been a fully produced Nas album from Kanye West? “Still Dreaming” is the best song on any version of HHID.


 


Track 11: “Hope” feat. Chrisette Michelle prod. by L.E.S., Nas, Alexander Mosely


The album version was an a cappella (probably due to sample clearances), but the original version is mandatory. “Hope” is the ultimate bridge from Street’s Disciple to HHID–somber strings, nostalgic images of yesteryear, and disgust for what the culture has become. Nas confesses to never having another job in his life besides being a rapper, so in that regard, it’s painful for him to watch hustlers, schemers, and con artists jump in his arena and become successful. If the media actually listened to this album, they would’ve stopped asking rappers if hip-hop was dead. Nas outlines it clearly: “Cause if you asking why is hip-hop dead, you a pretty good reason it died. It’s a pretty good chance your lame ass, corny ass is the reason it died.”


 


Track 12: “Hip Hop is Dead” prod by will.i.am


If you skipped Street’s Disciple and the bulk of HHID, the title cut is the cliff notes version of both albums. There is no subtlety behind this joint: re-cycling “Thief’s Theme,” will.i.am jamming in almost every famous break beat, and Nas touching on hot-button issues of the day (David Stern making NBA players have a dress code, the rise of MP3’s, McDonald’s hip-hopping up their marketing approach). There is no hope. It is a fitting closer–the emotions of an angry, spiteful, tired, and aging all-time great rapper bouncing off the block party sounds that made him want to pick up a pen decades earlier. He’s like Don Draper in 1969, smart enough to pay attention to what the kids are doing but utterly repulsed at what the kids are doing.

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