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-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. As evidenced by last year's highly-publicized reconciliation with longtime adversary JAY-Z, and his subsequent signing to Def Jam recordings, Nas has shown that actions speak louder than words: unity is more powerful than divisiveness. The time has come for hip-hop to grow. Now, with the. December 19th release of his long-awaited Def Jam debut- the aptly-titled Hip Hop Is Dead- Nas returns to his role as mentor and teacher, his legendary mic skills as sharp as ever, and takes today's young rappers back to school. The lesson? Hip-Hop- as Nas see's it- is very much alive.
Given its provocative title, it's no surprise that parts of Hip Hop Is Dead feel like an elegy of sorts. Nas practically came into the game looking backwards (see "Memory Lane" off Illmatic) but he seems more nostalgic than ever with tracks like "Where Are They Now?," "Carry on Tradition," "Can't Forget About You," and the title song which all focus on rap's past. This reminiscing can only fan the dim candle fans keep lit for Nas, hopeful that he'll make a full return to his former glory. But, once again, the rapper teases and falls short. As has become habit, Nas does manage to knock out a handful of excellent songs ("Can't Forget" and "Play on Playa" for example), along with a handful of awful fare (none worse than "Who Killed It," Nas's disastrous attempt to channel the spirit of '30s gangster actor Edward G. Robinson), and a few forgettable filler songs. The production is similarly uneven though Kanye West's and Will.I.Am's contributions are reliably listenable. The biggest shortcoming is that given it's title Hip Hop Is Dead aspires to be an event album but it never delivers on that promise despite the heady symbolism of former rival Jay-Z joining him on "Black Republicans." In the end, this is another good, not great album. Hip-hop isn't dead and neither is Nas but both could use a shot of life. --Oliver Wang