The sentiments of that four-word title are at the core of every track on the disc. The opening “Money over Bullshit” is laced with an epic deep-bass riff and marching, dirge-like, clipped-off drum licks; the chorus urges: “Join me in war, many will live, many will mourn/Money over bullshit, pistols over brawn/Afraid not of none of you cowards but of my own strength.” It’s one of the best songs on the album, and Nas’s vivid verses emphasize craft over gloss. On “Not Going Back” he condemns the lavish lifestyles of video culture: “First-class flights, diamonds in your crucifixes/All those things, you still ain’t really doing shit, kid/ ’Cause in reality I’ll earn my salary/The way I flaunted it then would now embarrass me/It kinda make me want to hate bling/It’s a race thing/How they sell blacks the bootleg shit.”
Ever the contradictory icon, Nas has never shied away from his past as a Diddy collaborator and pioneer of the bling culture that has mostly run its course. The artist who once recorded a song called “Destroy and Rebuild” sees no contradiction in now offering to “Carry On Tradition” on an album he’s named Hip Hop Is Dead.
If only the beats were as complex. Nas’s passable selection has always been a target of his critics, and there’s no denying that the rhythm tracks are rarely worthy of his lyrics. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas gives the CD two of its best beats, the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”–jacking title track and “Can’t Forget About You,” which samples Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” without blaspheming. Kanye West and L.E.S. also provide top-notch work, especially on the drum-heavy “Let There Be Light” (Kanye) and the Jay-Z guest-starring, Godfather II–sampling “Black Republican” (L.E.S.).
Still, nothing is progressive or memorable, and Scott Storch’s two commercial retreads include “Play on Playa,” easily the worst song on the album. The best beat comes from Dr. Dre, who provides “Hustlers” with paranoid screeching strings that would have sat nicely next to guest star the Game’s work on his recent Doctor’s Advocate. Dre, whose followers have followers these days, has maintained his grip on the industry through two decades of producing. Seeing him and Nas together again (they collaborated on the lone Firm record) is a reminder that rappers are no longer disposable. The days of the stars who flash and then fizzle — like rock-and-roll pioneers Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry — could be on the wane. Before long, rap could have relevant elder statesmen on the order of Dylan, Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones.
It’s no wonder that Nas felt the time was right for the hegemony of hip-hop to be challenged. Like the self-important, pseudo-progressive rock of the ’70s (which was foretold by the very Iron Butterfly track that he samples here), hip-hop has become a lumbering giant, fat off its own hype, convinced that it deserves to be the dominant paradigm by virtue of its very existence. Fans aren’t exempt. The generation that no longer had to prove the legitimacy of the music became fixated on the excesses — drugs, violence, money, ego. Some are longing for the golden age; others are looking for the next big jump. The commercial hordes are stuck in the middle.