In his contradictory way, Nas is pushing things forward as much as he’s playing to the streets; yet he knows and respects history. On “Where Are They Now?” he uses a beat from James Brown, the most important artist in the history of hip-hop sampling, to run through great rappers who are no longer in the public eye. The track honors the past, but it’s also an indictment of the way we listen to music and value artists. As Mos Def said, “Hip-hop won’t get better till the people get better.”
At the end, Nas raps a cappella while Chrisette Mitchell sings, “Live hip-hop, live.” Worn out from battle, the 33-year-old MC sits back and reminisces. Finally, he makes his stand: “If you’re askin’, ‘Why is hip-hop dead?’, it’s a pretty good chance you’re the reason it died.” This is a challenge not to the South, or to rappers, but to everyone, to you. Coming from a fresh-faced youngster, or a one-hit wonder surrounded by girls and rims on MTV, it might have fallen on deaf ears. But coming from a new legend, it’s already history.
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