Nas sounds off, even if his sound is at times off


"Hip Hop Is Dead" (Def Jam)

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Labeled early in his career as the second-coming of Rakim -- one of rap's most respect lyricists -- Nas shouldered the responsibility during his decade-plus career by carrying rap to new lyrical and thematic heights. The Queens artist has regularly lived up to the hype but has also released several frustrating albums in which he slipped back into the type of material-driven, sex-driven drivel clearly beneath someone of Nas' caliber.

On his largely satisfying eighth album, Nas demonstrates why he remains one of rap's most revered artists, as his defense of hip-hop culture is impassioned and informed, if not fully realized. The funky "Where Are They Now" pays homage to many of rap's forgotten innovators, the soulful "Still Dreaming" urges self-reliance and the spooky "Blunt Ashes" creatively examines the lives and tragedies of many legendary performers. The wistful "Can't Forget About You" gains some reflective power from its sample of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." But for all of his brilliance, Nas continues picking beats that drain some of the energy from his lyrics. "Money Over ..." plods along with a dull piano-driven beat that never fully comes to life, and the typically solid Scott Storch delivers an uncharacteristically listless soundbed for "Carry On Tradition," which includes some of Nas' best lyrics on the album. Here, Nas blasts rappers for playing into jealousy and self-hatred, both of which lead to rap stagnation. It's this dichotomy that makes "Hip Hop Is Dead" a characteristically frustrating outing from Nas.

Like many of his previous efforts, lyrically and conceptually, it's second-to-none. But musically and in terms of execution, it doesn't always hit the mark. For Nas to make more riveting arguments, he needs to bring the type of musical might that seems to come so naturally with his lyrics.

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor).

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