When Nas exploded onto the hip-hop scene with Illmatic in 1994, he was posited as nothing less than the form's savior, a teen lyrical messiah from the fertile breeding grounds of the Queensbridge projects. Since then, Nas has sold out, regained his credibility, lost the plot, found the plot, feuded with Jay-Z, and joined forces with Jay-Z. Nas is barely into his mid-30s, but in hip-hop years, he's a wizened old man, a battle-scarred veteran of New York's meanest streets and rap's most notorious beefs.
Nas has long been fascinated by hip-hop's past, and his Def Jam debut, Hip Hop Is Dead, is haunted by all manner of ghosts. Like Dr. Dre's simpatico 2001, it's the work of a world-weary survivor contemplating all his peers who fell by the wayside, victims of violence, hubris, and the fickle nature of rap fame. On "Where Are They Now," Nas observes, over the primal boom-bap of an old-school James Brown sample, that "rap is like a ghost town," and rattles off an affectionate roll call of once-prominent rappers history left behind. "Where Are They Now" is preceded by the tellingly named "Carry On Tradition"—which doubles as the album's mission statement—and followed by the Will.I.Am-produced title track, which dips back into Nas' recent history by flipping the same sample that powered his "Thief's Theme."
Here, Nas makes peace with his past and his former enemies. Two of the album's best tracks feature Jay-Z and Kanye West, the rapper and producer, respectively, of "The Takeover," the dis track that reignited Nas' competitive fire. "Black Republican" accomplishes the formidable feat of living up to fans' expectations for a Nas/Jay-Z collaboration, while "Still Dreaming" finds West in top form as both a rapper and a producer. Hip Hop is unsparing in its diagnosis of rap's ills, but ultimately, it's hopeful. It contains a smart, tight, cohesive analysis of where rap went astray, but also the seeds of the genre's rebirth and renewal.