Twelve years ago, Common declared hip-hop a mangled, barely living whore he pledged to resuscitate. Nas now declares that whore deceased. “Everyone sound the same/Commercialized the game,” he complains on Hip Hop Is Dead‘s title track, buttressed by will.i.am’s improbably vicious Iron Butterfly sample. Nas’s eighth record (and first for Def Jam) is a Dante-channeling journey through the many diverse facets of hip-hop, highlighted by the Dr. Dre–produced “QB Tru G’s,” wherein Nas—supported with a simple, eerie synth line and a verse from the Game—re-establishes both his street credibility and his status as hip-hop royalty. Elsewhere, “Black Republican” is a gripping Jay-Z collaboration with a dissonant string arrangement and a harsh reappraisal of the American Dream in the ghetto. These ideas are hardly novel, of course, but Nas pulls them off as if they were.
At record’s end, “Can’t Forget About You” offers us a nostalgia-fused how-I-fell-in-love-with-hip-hop retrospective that’s dangerously close to a masterpiece, will.i.am’s sample of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” improbably anchoring a beat of both beauty and depth. The hook, sung by Chrisette Michele, is a gorgeous melody that could easily pass for a Billie Holiday sample, and Nas, like the imagist he is, contemplates something more peaceful than death: “There comes a day in your life when you want to kick back/Straw hat on the porch when you old perhaps.” We had a good run for a while. No tears now. It’s time to start over.
Nas plays Nokia Theatre Times Square December 22, nokiatheatrenyc.com.