The last major rap release of 2006, Nas‘ Hip Hop Is Dead sought to make a powerful statement. “Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/Reminiscing when it wasn’t all business,” he rapped on the will.i.am-assisted title track.
The album cover even depicted the Queensbridge MC tossing a black rose into a grave as he mourned the purported death of the art form he helped to shape and elevate.
Arriving in an era increasingly dominated by Southern rappers such as Lil Wayne, T.I. and Jeezy (who had yet to drop the “Young” from his name) — with Crunk and Snap hits flooding the airwaves — many took it as a slight against Hip Hop’s “third coast.”
In fact, Ludacris, Outkast’s Big Boi and Jeezy were among the many Southerners who took exception to the title, with the latter telling the Philadelphia radio station 100.3 The Beat, “I don’t think Hip Hop is dead at all. It’s just a new day and time, it’s a new story, it’s a new movement. I’ma respect his craft; he ain’t gon’ respect mine?”
As it turns out, Nas’ critique was actually aimed at those closer to home. In the latest episode of his and Miss Info’s Spotify podcast The Bridge: 50 Years of Hip Hop — featuring Jeezy as the special guest — the rap icon revealed Hip Hop Is Dead was largely directed at his New York rap peers.
“I didn’t think that certain people would think I’m talking about them,” he admitted at the 15:30-minute mark. “Oh nah, I’m talking about mainly New York! Mainly New York. I’m talking to everybody, but I didn’t explain it thorough enough.”
While Nas didn’t name names, New York rap in the mid 2000s was defined by the likes of 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Dipset’s Cam’ron, Jim Jones and Juelz Santana, all of whom helped usher in a newer, modern era in the Mecca of Hip Hop.
Jeezy also reflected on the Hip Hop Is Dead debate during the episode, recalling both his disappointment and defiance when Nas’ album dropped in the midst of his own rise to rap stardom.
“When he did Hip Hop [Is] Dead, I thought he was talking about us,” he said. “I wanted to be the front guy and say what I said. At the time, you gotta think, I’m just getting on. I’m just seeing my first legitimate money. I’m just getting my shows going. And then you got The Don in New York saying ‘Hip Hop is dead’!”
Jeezy’s outspokenness only earned him admiration from Nas, who said, “It was big of him to say something; I respected that.” The pair later hashed things out over the phone and have since become good friends, famously joining forces on the 2008 anthem “My President.”
In truth, Hip Hop Is Dead was never intended to be a critique of Southern rap. “You’d be an idiot to think I’m talking about how the South killed Hip Hop,” Nas told Pitchfork in 2006. Let’s not forget he also rallied the Dirty South — along with rap’s other major regions — on “Hip Hop Is Dead.”
But with so many differing statements from the Queensbridge legend about what exactly “killed” Hip Hop — commercialism? Lack of ownership in the industry? Young fans’ inability to quote Big Daddy Kane? Dem Franchize Boyz’s “White Tee”? — the true meaning behind the title always felt muddled.
On the album’s 10th anniversary in 2016, Nas admitted in hindsight he “missed the mark” with Hip Hop Is Dead.
“In retrospect, I missed the mark by miles,” he said. “I didn’t want to pick people apart. It felt like it was for a younger artist to do. I thought the title was enough; to say it’s dead, it was to say, ‘I don’t know where to begin, I don’t know where to start. But at least I’ll name it this and we’ll see where it goes from there.'”
Nevertheless, the album was still a commercial success, topping the Billboard 200 with over 350,000 first-week sales as it inches its way to platinum certification. Revisit Hip Hop Is Dead below.