Part of the reason Hip-Hop Is Dead is so anticipated, beyond fans just wanting to hear new music, is because there's a certain curiosity as to where Nas will take the album. This means not only what coming to Def Jam and working with a stable of new producers will entail, but, literally, which Nas will show up.
Perhaps more than any other rapper, each new Nas album has reflected a certain personal and artistic change. God's Son wasn't Escobar, the fiery return of Stillmatic contrasted with the depression of I Am, and the engaged, father of Street's Disciple surely differed from the street corner youth of Illmatic. In the decade-plus since Nas first broke into the game, he's gone from saying he "won't plant seeds" to dedicating whole songs to his daughter, from a lifestyle with "crazy bitches" to celebrating monogamy and getting married. And while these changes have not always produced artistically successful projects, they do reflect a personal growth, a honesty with the music that Nas exemplifies as much as anyone.
At the same time, though we're curious where he's going to take the new album, in most of us who beg for Primo or wax nostalgic on those Halftime days, there's a desire to hear that early Nas once more, that Illmatic Nas, that '94 adrenaline shot from the jungles of QB that came in without all the pretenses and impossible expectations future albums would meet. We want to hear those struggles from the stoop's side of things, when the beats were that classic New York call, the tooth was chipped, and the name was Nasty. Yet, as Nas has continually said, "it's always forward I'm moving, never backwards." Because of this, the only real way to revisit those days is to revisit that classic ten track trek of his, or, because like anything where Nas leaves a trail of unreleased work around, you can go back before Illmatic, before '94, to when it was Just Another Day in the Projects.
One of several available pre-Illmatic songs, Just Another Day in the Projects is similar to the later NY State of Mind; the two even share a couple of the very same rhymes, "I had a dream I was a gangsta / Drinking Moet, holding Tec's." However, whereas Nas rather quickly snaps out of that dream on the Primo-laced album turn, "but just a nigga, walking with his finger on the trigger", here Nas leads the illusion on for an entire lengthy-sized verse. The conclusion is along the same lines, where thoughts of the good life are juxtasposed by the trigger-ready reality of the projects, but the gangsta fantasy scene is at least given more descriptive space on Just Another Day:
Custom made suits, hands full of ice and goldIn looking at the song's overall lyrical content, as it was most likely written when Nas was still just a teenager and yet to develop the voice that would shine on Memory Lane or Life's A Bitch, for instance, there's a particular roughness to his rap. As an example, you hear him using "nine", on two different occasions, to set off a rhyme and see him blunder with a couple borderline corny brags, "I made the bad guys on Miami Vice look nice." Fortunately, elsewhere, Nas still proves quite adept with a multisyllabic style and a use of verbal imagery, such as in his description of a New York cop, "he looked like a Klansman with a gun." Even still, that aforementioned roughness, that rawness, if amateurish at points, is part of what is so appealing about a track like Just Another Day in the Projects. It reminds people of a time when Nas was Nasty, when the package wasn't so polished, when Hip-Hop could come from the gutter without first being sanitized for mass consumption. But everything has changed, Nas included.
Making $1000 bets on the dice I roll
Girls work the night patrol, the whore market
When I walk, niggas is rolling out the red carpet
From the early 90's to now in 2006, Nas' world view has evolved noticeably; as a result, no matter how nostalgic you may get, it'd be rather futile to ask him to go back to "gunfights with mega cops." It'd be impossible to have him deliver another Illmatic -- Hip-Hop Is Dead is the title after all.
As a final note, it appears necessary to remind that Hip-Hop Is Dead is not the name of the new LP because the south has been the go-to choice for the past couple years, as some have taken it to imply. Instead, it's fitting because the corporate machine, from record companies to communication channels, has expanded ever more and more, consolidating power in the hands of a few scant shareholders. In the process, what gets play has become overwhelmingly one-sided, the artist increasingly deprived of any control, integrity lost for all. With this pressure on Hip-Hop, this loss right before him, having seen something once so potent stripped of its very spirit, it'll be interesting to see how Nas reacts and in what mood the game has left him; come December, we'll hopefully find out.
Nas: Just Another Day in the Projects