Nas has always sounded older than his years, but there are moments on his eighth album when he sounds like the lead in the hood version of Grumpy Old Men. On "Carry On Tradition," he chastises whippersnapper MCs for disrespecting their elders: "I got an exam, let's see if y'all pass it/Let's see who could quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest." On the next song, "Where Are They Now," he laments the plight of scores of forgotten MCs, from Special Ed to the Fu-Shnickens (c'mon — who gets nostalgic for the Fu-Shnickens?). Then he presents the manifesto "Hip Hop Is Dead," which calls out modern-day hip-hop as a commercialized shadow of its former greatness and attacks empty-headed MCs with dense, colorful couplets: "Word to the wise with villain state of minds/Grindin', hittin' Brazilian dimes from behind."
The single has sparked indignation from next-gen MCs like Young Jeezy. But few observers have mentioned the next track, "Who Killed It?," a narrative rhymed in the dialect of a Fifties film-noir gumshoe trying to solve the mystery of hip-hop's death. In this telling, hip-hop is a "skirt" who's been around since "slaves said rhymes" and falls in love with DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx in the early Seventies. Nas never solves the crime, but his point is implicit — few MCs are taking the artistic chances he does. Still, he ends on an optimistic note: As hip-hop is dying, with a sack of money on her back, her last words are "If you really love me, I'll come back alive."