Nas has had a truly dramatic recent personal history—the end of his relationship with Columbia Records (with whom he has worked since his debut in 1994); a seemingly totally blissful and rad marriage to Kelis; and in total soap opera/pro-wrestling fashion a huge, public, and hypothetically totally surprising reconciliation with former friend and years-long public enemy Jay-Z. All of this has gone some way toward lending a special gravity to his new record, at least for those who love hiphop as much for the personal mythologies of its pantheon as the music itself.
The record is called Hip Hop Is Dead, and while that seems like it should yield a most clear and laser-pointed thematic core from which Nas could proselytize, over the record's 16 tracks it all proves strikingly contradictory. Within the first five songs Nas vacillates from bluntly stating "hiphop is dead" to "hiphop's been dead, we're the reason it died" to "if hiphop should die before I wake." The closing, a cappella "Hope" features Nas berating those corny asses who killed it even as frequently appearing chanteuse Chrisette Michele belts "hiphop will never die."
While one could conjecture that an artist as wise and frequently great as Nas is truly attacking an issue that is serious and close to his heart from varied, intricate perspectives, the more assertive truth is that we find him here as he has rarely seemed in his long career—confused. Worse still, it seems like he is content with leaving whatever his essential thesis statement might have been buried deep in the cold, cold ground. While one could argue for the validity of an utterly incoherent and contradictory record as an earnest and intense reflection of its maker, in this case the problem is not with Nas's intemperance, but with his lack of depth.
Hip Hop Is Dead is, truly, an event album for the culture of rap music—both in its basic logistical facts (the reconciliation with Jay-Z and Nas's new signing to Def Jam, the most monumental label in the history of the music) and in its promotional framing. (The Old Lion's state of the union address and rallying cry for future generations to reinvigorate the art.) However, where Nas had a serious opportunity to make a serious statement about hiphop, perhaps more by the example of his artistry than the more blunt stumping found here, he has instead produced an inflated and thematically artificial pop record. Regardless of Nas's intentions, it ultimately feels like the whole notion of "Hip Hop Is Dead" becomes a marketing tool as garish as "Jay's Final Album" or "King of the South" rather than the conceptual jumping-off point it could have been. On the radio-rushing, admittedly satisfying title track, it is truly difficult to reconcile Nas's breathless revenge oath for the murderers of hiphop with the basic fact of the song's producer being the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am, a man who has made a more crass and, indeed, art-murdering transition as a hiphop artist than maybe anyone in recent history. (See international cheese smash "Where Is the Love.")
Furthermore, Hip Hop Is Dead finds Nas lovingly but slavishly referencing the past—Melle Mel, MC Shan, and an army of other largely forgotten rap artists are trotted out and referenced throughout the record; "Where Are They Now" is, in fact, essentially an encyclopedia of '80s MCs. While the general notion of readdressing the legacies of the past to instill the right foundation in future generations is a consistent and venerated theme in hiphop, one doesn't really want to hear an artist as brilliant and potentially vital as Nas spending his time bemoaning the breakup of the Fat Boys. The greatest gift and impetus Nas could give to his music and culture would be to make records of fiercely experimental, expressive, and inspired work rather than getting mired in a feedback loop of nostalgia and resentment. Nas is still, at this point, actively one of the greatest MCs of all time, but the lack of penetrating content on Hip Hop Is Dead is alarming and could lend doubt as to exactly what side he's on.