Hip Hop Is Dead is not Illmatic. Illmatic stands as one of the most impressive debuts in rap music, and consequently has set up inevitable, and often unfavorable, comparisons with each of Nas' subsequent releases. And so it is practically a given that the two albums in fact do not compare, that the beats, the rhymes, the insight, the flow Mr. Jones had on Illmatic have not been duplicated here, and in all honestly, probably never will. Nas himself seems aware of this -- though he would never admit it -- as throughout the record he references the MCs, the producers, the DJs who made the music what it was and what it is today, many of whom were releasing material in the early '90s, when Nas first made a mark. He himself is one of them.
The statement that "hip hop is dead" is clearly meant to be controversial, and was, as rappers and rap fans alike exploded into debate after Nas declared it to be the title of his next album. But it's also a statement that the MC doesn't completely adhere to. He flip-flops between declaring that it has already gone, to warning of its imminent departure, to promising "to carry on tradition," to resurrecting it. But these inconsistencies don't come from contradictions in Nas' beliefs; rather, they stem from the fact that his biggest problem with hip-hop has nothing to do with current talent, but what hip-hop itself has become -- how it's magnified from an art form, from a way the ghetto expressed itself, into a commercialized, corporate entity that Nas himself is part of, something about which he feels more than a little guilty. This is most openly addressed on "Black Republican," which appropriately features an equally guilty (in terms of both improving and commercializing rap music) Jay-Z, who spits out better lines than anything he did on Kingdom Come. The track, which ingeniously samples "Marcia Religiosa" from The Godfather II (a film that, in many ways, parallels Nas' ideas about hip-hop as it deals with the dark side of making money and the problems that befall an overly zealous pursuit of the always crafty American Dream), finds both MCs lamenting the state of the genre while also acknowledging their own participation -- and enjoyment -- of what it's given them. "Black Republican" is an understanding and admittance of hypocrisy, and this sentiment continues in "Not Going Back" and "Carry on Tradition," the latter in which Nas rhymes, "We used to be a ghetto secret/Can't make my mind up if I want that/Or the whole world to peep it." Nas enjoys the fame, but he also realizes that it has hurt the very thing he loves most, his "first wifey."
Yet Mr. Jones is not completely blaming himself for hip-hop's demise. In fact, he gives more of that responsibility to those who don't respect it, who don't know its originators, and he takes stabs at them more than at himself (he did release Illmatic, after all). He's also willing to ease up on his criticism and rhyme in more general terms, although it is these tracks (specifically "Still Dreaming" and "Hold Down the Block," but much of the second half of the album as well) on which he loses some of the intensity and intelligence that he displayed earlier in the record. Still, he's able to regain his strength by the end, bringing together the East and West Coast on the Dre-produced "Hustlers," which features a great verse from the Game about trying to decide between buying Illmatic or The Chronic and being the "only Compton ni**a with a New York state of mind." Nas finishes up Hip Hop Is Dead with the spoken word piece "Hope," which, despite its seeming simplicity, shows off his indelible flow, how he raps as easily as he talks. Consciously or not, listeners are reminded that there's a reason he was the one who made Illmatic, and why it, and therefore Nas himself, will continue to be held in high esteem.