Nas has always had a gift for timing. It’s almost uncanny how well he’s been able to capture certain moments in time. I don’t think many will forget the way they felt the first time they heard Illmatic. It was pure euphoria, and it signaled a new era in hip-hop. But his gift isn’t just about shaping the musical landscape. Esco’s records have often drawn on powerful currents in the broader culture.
With Stillmatic—and “One Mic,” “Rule” and “My Country” in particular—Nas embodied the anguish and uncertainty felt by so many after September 11. Then, with God Son’s “Made You Look,” Nas represented the mood that pervaded the streets of New York with the War on Terrorism looming. I remember being in Brooklyn around that time and hearing that track everywhere—out car windows, in clubs, in people’s cribs. It seemed like everyone was on the same page. Everyone needed an escape, an affirmation of life, that ah yeah feeling that only really dope music can bring, the sense that things might just be alright after all. Even the sub par Street’s Disciple had one of those joints on there. The LP dropped in the fall of 2004, during the height of 50 mania. Knucklehead rap reigned supreme. It was intoxicating, seductive. But then “Just a Moment” hit and people had to stop and think—to confront the results of that cocky swagger, to look at where all that foul, never-back-down braggadocio leads.
To me, Hip-Hop is Dead is that kind of album. It’s a timely project—one that’s destined to have an impact on the culture. HHID is a deliberate pause. It forces you to reevaluate.
It’s been a year of chant-rap dope boy bullshit, to be sure. Crappy beats matched with mediocre rhymes about nothing. Songs you won’t remember a month from now, let alone years down the line. The occasional flash of brilliance to keep you from bouncing.
But it’s been a year of senseless violence too. Obie was shot. Proof was shot. Beanie Sigel, Gravy, Slick Pulla, Philant Johnson, Israel Ramirez, Big Hawk. This year’s violence is reminiscent of the shootings of times past: Biggie, Tupac, Jam Master Jay. Young, talented men who beat so many odds, achieved so much, and then lost everything to violence. So many lives lost. So many fates altered. And for what?
With HHID, Nas throws this dynamic into sharp relief. He offers an alternative to the Tragic Hero that haunts rap. Nas is one of the best to ever grace the mic. And he’s not going out in a hail of bullets. Instead, he’s chosen to grow up. To halt the cycle of violence. To—along with Jay—give hip-hop a new icon to rock to. He isn’t about to lose everything over petty beef. He’s going to get the full life he’s worked so hard for. He’s going to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He’s going to be a father and a husband and a member of the community. He’s won. And he’s not going back.