ALIVE AND WELL: In the 16th year of his recording career, Nas is at a new artistic and commercial peak.
On his 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides (Rawkus), Mos Def says, “We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody. So the next time you ask yourself where is hop-hop going, ask yourself where am I going? How am I doing?” It’s ironic, then, that the cover of Nas’s Hip Hop Is Dead (Def Jam) finds us below ground, looking up at the rapper as he drops a lone rose on our collective grave. “If hip-hop should die, we die together,” he declares on the title track.
It’s hardly the first time this morbid topic has been broached. Ever since Run-D.M.C. teamed up with Aerosmith to “Walk This Way” into rotation on MTV way back in 1986, hip-hop has been eulogized. Even in 1994, the year Nas’s now classic Illmatic (Columbia) was released, Common lamented, “I Used To Love H.E.R.”: “Stressing how hardcore and real she is/She was really the realest before she got into showbiz.” More than 12 years later, he shuffles through Gap ads equating hooded sweaters with the ’hood.
The most popular interpretation of Nas’s title declaration — dismissed by Nas, who never pretends there’s a simple explanation — is that the New York star is insulting the South, where hip-hop has thrived in the new century to the detriment of the music’s home court. Such talk prompted Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris to wear a shirt at the BET awards that said, “Hip Hop Ain’t Dead, It Lives in the South.” Regional co-workers T.I., Lil’ Wayne, and Young Jeezy have voiced similar feelings.
But what’s been overlooked with the arrival of Nas’s eighth all-new CD is the emerging power of the battle-tested veteran. KRS-One and Chuck D of Public Enemy had been relegated to old-school comps and the college lecture circuit by the time their careers hit the double-digit expiration date. But Nas, the new kind of hip-hop legend, now entering the 16th year of his recording career (see Main Source’s classic Breaking Atoms for the then-17-year-old’s first verse), finds himself at an artistic and commercial peak with Hip Hop Is Dead, an album filled with as many great hooks and perfect lines as his last commercial smash, It Was Written (Columbia), 10 years ago.
Even more surprising in a genre famous for its short attention span and an industry that tends to treat urban music as disposable, the Queens-born legend has company. In just the second half of 2006, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Ghostface Killah, OutKast, and the Roots all released albums that were not just relevant but the highest-profile CDs of the year. None of these artists has left the spotlight in his decade-plus career. This longevity gives them the ability to start conversations and create change, not just among historians and critics but on BET, at local radio stations, and in the streets. When Chuck D challenges the status quo, a bunch of fortysomethings nod their heads, but Nas can put the young rappers (and the lil’ ones, too) on the defensive.