Nas: Better Than Nas

Hiphopisdead1.jpgThat Soul Plane movie's the bomb

When "Black Republican" first leaked, I made a point not to listen to it because I didn't want DJ drops to taint my first experience of the big song-event Jay-Z collabo. Turns out "Black Republican" is exactly what I hoped it would be. It's pretty amazing just to hear Jay and Nas ad-libbing back and forth at each other on the intro while L.E.S.'s epic, swollen strings churn and swoop; the song is huge and grandiose before anyone raps a single line. Jay's verse is all fractured, unfocused imagery, but the track finds him cockier and more self-impressed than he ever is on Kingdom Come. Nas responds in kind, all clipped, sneering precision, though standing on rooftops inhaling whirlwinds of beef sounds like a good way to catch E.coli. These guys understand how important this song is, and there's more than a hint of competitiveness in the way they push each other higher. Neither one wants to be overshadowed, and so they both work hard. I'm glad I waited to hear it. But waiting meant that I had to get through three near-unlistenable minutes of Nas impersonating Edward G. Robinson's "nyaa, see" gangster-movie sneer over a horrible twinkle-bap Will.I.Am beat, saying a bunch of stuff that doesn't even come close to making sense ("Your conspiracy theories won't work without evidence / That's the reason Eric B is not president.") "Who Killed It?" is hilarious and ridiculous and utterly pointless, and not only does Nas not delete it from the album, but he uses it to lead into one of the most feverishly anticipated songs in years. Nas may be a great rapper, but his decision-making skills could use a little work.

As for the rest of Hip Hop is Dead, it's pretty much the exact same album Nas has been releasing ever since Stillmatic: a handful of brilliant moments, an unforgivably goofy concept-song or two, and a whole lot of tracks of Nas rapping beautifully over boring beats. The album's title is a shock-value conversation-starter, the sort of thing that sends Young Jeezy into paroxysms of defensiveness. But Nas doesn't even try to make a coherent case for that title's claim; he uses it as a launching point for a series of confused riffs. "Carry On Tradition" is an interesting case in point. On the first verse, Nas decries old-man resentment: "Ninjas your grandfather's age / They pants still hanging down they leg talking about they ain't paid." On the second verse, he embodies that same resentment: "Some of these new rappers got they caps flipped backwards / Fingers intertwined on some gang-sign madness." And on the third, he admits to his own confusion and indecision: "We used to be a ghetto secret / Can't make my mind up if I want that or the whole world to peep it." That sort of unresolved conflict is a whole lot more compelling than a top-down black-and-white pronouncement. Nas did rap on a Jennifer Lopez single, after all, so he can't quite claim defender-at-the-gates status. But he's also uncomfortable with rap's inevitable march toward the pop-music center. And so he has it both ways whenever he can. He brags about his wealth but then says the wealth doesn't mean anything: "First-class flights, diamonds in your crucifixes / All those things, you still ain't really doing shit, kid / Cuz in reality, I learned my salary / The way I flaunted it then would now embarrass me."

But Nas's ear for beats is still an issue. On the title track, he raps over a sample of the Incredible Bongo Band's cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." A couple of years ago, he rapped over a sample of the same track on "Thief's Theme." And so now everyone from 50 Cent to this blog's fruitflies have been using Nas's double-dip to paint him as old and lazy and out-of-touch. It's not a legitimate criticism. Rap uses the same samples over and over again. Alchemist just became the millionth rap producer to jack Edwin Starr's "Easin' In" on Prodigy's "Mac 10 Handle," and it does nothing to diminish from that track's spacey nihilism. Kingdom Come would've been about a thousand percent better if it had just been Jay rapping over the "Snoopy Track" beat for an hour straight. If anything, I'd like "Hip Hop is Dead" better if it sounded more like "Thief's Theme"; Will.I.Am speeds the sample up a bit and takes away some of that track's ominous creep. Other than "Black Republican," it's probably the best track here. The album's second-half comes loaded down with mid-tempo snoozers like "Can't Forget About You" and "Play On Playa," and the album's urgency gradually seeps away. When Dr. Dre's fiery strings turn up on "Hustlers," it feels like an electric jolt after a long nap.

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Nas is a virtuoso rapper who takes his craft seriously and twists language around with total authority. But there's a reason he sounds painfully out-of-place whenever he raps on a Timbaland track; he never sounds like he's having much fun. On "Play On Playa," he raps alongside Snoop Dogg, and the contrast between the two is revelatory. Nas raps eloquently and forcefully about watching his kids grow up, about meeting his mother in heaven, about conflict diamonds, about getting a happy-ending massage. The whole time, he projects the same air of hangdog discontent. Snoop raps about absolutely nothing, but he rolls his voice all around, finding jumping on and off the track with breezy effortlessness. Snoop isn't anywhere near as good a rapper as Nas, but I still wish Nas could discover some of that comfortable melodic warmth for himself.

There's an amazing moment on "Blunt Ashes" where Nas depicts Motown history as Greek tragedy: "David Ruffin was punching Tammi Terrell, gave her concussions / While the Funk Brothers was laying down the percussions / When Flo from the Supremes died, Diana Ross cried / Many people said that she was laughing inside." Nas must've been listening to a lot of Temptations lately, since there's another Ruffin reference a couple of songs later: "studio smokey now, hard like David Ruffin." Four years before Nas released Illmatic, Grand Puba opened All For One by rhyming David Ruffin with English muffin. It feels like Nas could mention Ruffin on every song he writes for the rest of his life and still never lighten up enough to rhyme it with English muffin. That's a shame.

Voice review: Michael Spies on Nas's Hip Hop is Dead Voice review: Greg Tate on Nas's Street's Disciple Voice review: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Nas's God's Son Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Nas circa: 2002 Voice review: Selwyn Seyfu Hinds on Nas's Stillmatic Voice review: Franklin Soults on Nas's I Am...

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