Review Summary: Nas attempts to conceptually present his audience with a reason of why "hip hop is dead", but fails.
"Illmatic" is kind of like the "OK Computer" of the rap world. A ridiculously respected, near completely heralded album that is considered to be one of the finest ever created. Similar to Radiohead, Nas is always going to live under the shadow of what many consider to be his and rap's greatest achievement. What made "Illmatic" so great was the fact that it was so believable and honest. In a genre that is saturated with over-indulgent brags and ridiculous claims of self worth, "Illmatic" is just a realistic look at a black teen in the mid '90s living in New York. Since that release, however, Nas' ego has grown and his work has suffered. Where "Illmatic" represented someone that was new to the scene but completely sure of himself (it features only one guest spot, a rarity in hip-hop), his later work makes it seem as if Nas is worried that his work will never reach the level of "Illmatic". "Hip Hop Is Dead" is an overstuffed album that features upwards of eight guest rappers and numerous high-profile producers. Where "Illmatic" was a simple, short endeavor, "Hip Hop Is Dead" is like an overblown epic in comparison.
I'm going to list the good aspects of this album before I rip it apart, so first let's address the two very original tracks on the album: Who Killed It? and Hope. Who Killed It? is probably the album's most controversial track because of Nas' change in voice. Basically, he attempts to tell the story of hip-hop's decline by using an allusion of the mob era of the '20s and '30s. Nas cops the dialect of the track and also accents his voice accordingly. While it certainly isn't the best track on the album, it is really interesting to see a rapper (especially one associated with the mainstream) take such a big risk on being original. Perhaps had Nas streamlined the originality in Who Killed It? to the rest of the album, it would've been a much better release. Alas, we are stuck with typical post-"Illimatic" tracks like You Can't Kill Me and Hustlers. Hope, the other impressively original track on the album, is almost completely a cappella besides some very tasteful female singing. The track is probably one of Nas' best and certainly the highlight of "Hip Hop Is Dead". Other positives are the Kanye-assisted Still Dreaming, which comes off almost as Nas' version of Drive Slow and Blunt Ashes, a reflective look on the worth of entertainer's careers. Also, Black Republican, while not being the most best-sounding track on the album, shows off that Jay-Z and Nas are both aware of their impact on the supposed "death of hip hop".
Hip Hop Is Dead has its good amount of highlights, but then it has the tracks that are completely horrendous, the titled track being the main one. First off, you have Will.I.Am once again being the worst digger ever, pulling out a beat from Iron Butterfly and just a point that has already been proven by countless MCs lyrically by Nas. I'm not sure if Nas thinks he's covering new ground with the track Hip Hop Is Dead, but to anyone that is even semi-aware of the underground movement of hip-hop in any era, it's just copping more than a few lines. Basically the first five tracks of the album are lyrically and production-wise some of the weakest things in Nas's career. While they do seem to be the more edgy in terms of lyrics work on the album, tracks like Blunt Ashes are far more successful in their simplicity.
And there, in fact, lies what is truly dead with hip-hop. The simplicity of early artists such as Rakim, Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest required them to be much more versed when it came to the lyrical attacks they unleashed. Even "Illmatic" sounds under-produced and ancient when compared to the glitz and glam of "Hip Hop is Dead". Had Nas actually attempted to do something different and not claim hip-hop is dead, but still use the same kind of music he's criticizing, than perhaps he may have released a much more successful attempt of an album. Instead, we are left with a shoddy impression of a formerly great MC that has let down his scene again and again. I for one am going to put on my copy of Illmatic and hope that I don't have to hear Ghostface, or any of my other current favorite rappers, talk about how hip hop is dead next year.
Hmm, I don't think this album is that bad, but it's not really good either. It's just too average on the whole to grab my interest. As you said there are some stand-out tracks but they fail to make an impression because they're surrounded by shitty songs. Hope and Black Republican are really good though. Oh, and I didn't like Who Killed It? at all...
Review was pretty nice, but maybe a bit too harsh. This Message Edited On 12.30.06
That single is really bad, I definitely agree with you on that. Will.i.am has an intensely annoying singing voice, and as far as samples go, In A Gada Da Vida is one of the most grating and all around bothersome I have ever heard.
I gotta listen to Hope, maybe it will redeem Nas again in my mind.
The title track is pathetic. "Hustlers" rules, the song with Kanye is pretty fly. "Money Over Bullsh*t" is real cool too, the beat actually sounds very Illmatic-esque. His acapella verses in "Hope" are awesome too.
I think you were a little too harsh on the album though. I agree about how he tries to make this big statement and backs it up with some pretty trite and cliche material (it fails where The Ugly Organ succeeded let's say). But given God's Son and Street's Disciple, I think it's a step forward.This Message Edited On 12.30.06
Very nice review. In general I'm not a hip hop fan but I did in fact listen to this all the way through. I thought it was good and some of the lyrics hit me pretty hard, but some of this was laughable.
I understand and agree with a lot of what's been said. The beats are way too glitzy, the In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida sample on the title track is retarded, and some of the chorus's are kinda cheesy, but i strongly disagree with the statement that the first 5 tracks are among Nas's weakest lyrically. IMO Nas's actual rapping is just as good as it was on Illmatic in many of these songs. Nas still has an amazing flow, and the actual rapping alone should be reason enough to pick up this album, even if it suffers from overproduction or weak guest spots.
I love when non-hip-hop fans review hip hop music. what in the hell would a white kid know about what made illmatic appealing to young black kids?
This album is at least a four... his lyrics were incredible on songs like "Can't Forget about you" and "you can't kill me". Even if every song on the album sucked, he would still have at least a 3 for the simple fact that he'll always tell a good story or inspire you to think which is a refreshing change from artists like young jeezy and Dem Franchise Boyz. Stick to reviewing Blink 182 and Good Charlotte. Leave hip hop to XXL or something...