Nasir Jones is hip-hop’s grumpiest man. Even when he’s gloating over success he sounds aggrieved. Unlike other top-tier MCs, his records offer little comic relief; his punchlines sting, but they almost never make you laugh. A dozen years and eight albums into his career, Nas is indisputably one of the world’s great rappers. But is he enjoyable?
That question hangs over Hip Hop Is Dead, the Queens native’s first CD for Def Jam, whose chief executive, Jay-Z, just happens to be the onetime object of Nas’ most bilious verbal assaults. The pair ended their feud last year, and they appear together on ”Black Republican,” trading boasts over symphonic strains of ”Marcia Religiosa” from the soundtrack to The Godfather Part II. It’s typical of the music on Hip Hop Is Dead, which is denser and more grandiose than the minimalist digital funk heard on rap radio. There are blasts of psychedelic soul (”Hold Down the Block”), a broody, bluesy Kanye West track (”Still Dreaming”), and the album’s musical standout, ”Who Killed It?” — a stormy mix of strings, brass, and a clobbering beat, produced by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.
That thicker musical texture isn’t the only thing setting Nas apart from the hip-hop mainstream. Hip Hop Is Dead is a kind of theme album, a requiem for old-school rap and an indictment of present-day hip-hop values, delivered in a froth of indignation. ”Some of these new rappers got they caps flipped backwards/With they fingers intertwined in some gang sign madness/I got an exam let’s see if ya’ll pass it/Let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest,” he raps in ”Carry On Tradition.” The title track mourns hip-hop’s fall from hardscrabble urban folk music to big business (”Went from turntables to MP3s/From Beat Street to commercials for Mickey D’s”), with an incendiary chorus: ”Roll to every station/Murder the DJ.” Rhetoric of this kind is de rigueur in alternative hip-hop, and it’s a bit dreary to hear Nas reciting clichés about the good old days. Sure, EPMD were great. So what else is new?
The strength of Nas’ music has always been its pathos: He’s often played the troubled gangsta, locked in a soul tussle between the pull of the street life and loftier impulses. Some of that depth surfaces in ”Play on Playa,” with its regret-clouded remembrances of his late mother: ”I stole change out her purse/Now I want to dig her up out of the earth.” But too often, the songs curdle into self-righteousness, and Nas’ unremitting orneriness makes even his most virtuosic songs heavy going. Hip Hop Is Dead is a lot like Nas himself: impossible not to admire, but hard to love.