Thursday, July 3, 2008
Nas - The Album That Shall Not Be Named: Review
There is an inherent dichotomy going on with Nas’ new album, “Untitled.” Due to the intention of originally wanting to call the album, “Nigger”, and all of the baggage that surrounds that name, we are not only left to judge the album for it’s music but also as a sociopolitical statement as well. Although, the Evil Hordes Of Political Correctness and Good Taste led by the dreaded tyrannical warlords, Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. and Jesse Louis Jackson, have successfully forced Nas and Def Jam to cut the balls off of Nas’ album title, we all still know what the album is actually called so as a critic we must take care to remember this dichotomy as we judge Nas’ latest opus. This album ain’t your typical rap album. It’s not even really your typical Nas album.
Surprisingly, the album works much better as a sociopolitical statement than it does as a traditionally great rap album. Nas, who always harbored some grandiose delusions of being a revolutionary political thinker, has always had some troubles translating his somewhat muddled politics into his music. Nas’ strength as a writer has always been his ability to articulate meticulous details in a story and creating mood. Unlike Chuck D whose ability to get his message across clear and concise, Nas was always able to convey rage or pathos but not necessarily be coherent. That’s not a problem on this album. This is Nas’ best lyrical performance in ages and if you are into hearing somebody kick lyrics for kicking lyrics sake than this album will go down as the best lyrical performance of the year. “Untitled” is about the consequences of being black in America and whether by blatant prejudice or by unconscious neglect and systemic oppression, a black man in America is still considered to be a “n*****”. Two of the best songs on the album “Sly Fox” and “Testify”, explicitly and deal with this fact. On the guitar-smashing, aggressive “Sly Fox”, Nas chastises the media and more specifically Fox News for hypocritically poisoning the public with their distorted half-truths and lies to the detriment of hip hop and black people. It’s a personal and angry screed unleashed by Nas in retaliation for the Bill O’Reilly’s personal attacks on Nas last year after the Virginia Tech Controversy. It’s a damn powerful song. On “Testify”, a downtrodden Nas laments and accuses his mostly white fans of only buying his records but missing the spirit of his music and refusing to stand with him and help change the world when the chips are down. The album is meant to make the listener uncomfortable and in that regard, it succeeds. Nas isn’t pulling any punches. He’s going to alienate a few of his fans with some of the material on this album. However, the fears that is album was simply using it’s original title to be exploitative are largely unwarranted. Unlike 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead, another “message” album, Nas’ message is clear and focused. The album deserves, at least, an honest listen without pre-conceived notions to allow Nas to speak his mind.
Ultimately, the problem with the album though, like every Nas’ album post-Stillmatic, is going to be the production. After years of pressure from every fan in the hip hop world, Nas wisely lost the phone numbers of long-time collaborators, Salaam Remi and L.E.S., as the latter doesn’t appear at all and the former only contributes the RZA-biting (or Daniel Dumille biting if you really want to get technical) “You Can’t Stop Us Now” (a song I actually sort of like). Instead of using the laid-back sample-heavy easy listening production that Nas has favored this decade, Nas opts for more live instrumentation and a more diverse crowd of producers than he has before employing the services of the likes of Jay Electronica, stic.man of dead prez, Polow Da Don, and Mark Ronson to handle the production duties on this album. The results for the most part are hit and miss. Polow Da Don continues to prove he’s one of the best producers working as he produces the glittery commercially-minded single “Hero” which continues to sound better and better the more I hear it. The song builds to a fever pitch by employing these twinkling synths and butt rock guitars that helps to make “Hero” one of Nas’ better commercially-minded singles ever (Granted, I suppose the competition is really only “If I Ruled The World” because we all remember the “You Owe Me/Nastradamus/Oochie Wally” trifecta of suckiness earlier this decade unless you’re like me and completely repressed it from your memories). Mark Ronson’s “Fried Chicken” is another standout track which uses the obvious but still weirdly odd metaphor of eating fried chicken to being in love with a promiscuous women.
In other places on the album, however, the album is strapped with Nas’ traditional slow-tempo snoozefests. As songs, “Breathe”, “We’re Not Alone”, and “America” don’t do a hell of a lot for me and while they are still interesting to listen to for Nas’ sheer lyricism, they don’t exactly have a lot of replay value on their own accord. In other places, Nas’ tradition of including one horrifically half-baked abortion of a song continues. “Make The World Go Round” featuring The Game and Chris Brown plays the goat here as it matches “Birthday Girl” in sheer, commercial fuckery. Often the album can fall into the lyricism for lyricism sake category which a lot of Nas’ haters loathe Nas for. If you aren’t a Nas fan or don’t like his brand of music, you’ll probably hate this album but if you’re looking for hot beats and mindless lyricism I suppose there is always that Weezy album people are falling over themselves to worship it’s gleaming testicles. As I mention earlier, lyrically Nas sounds absolutely inspired and comes across as a complete firebrand. “Queens Gets The Money”, the minimalist Jay Electronica produced intro, is a stunning display of sheer lyricism that honestly puts pretty much everybody to shame. Nas’ stampedes over the beat and simply unleashes his potent poetry. It’s an awesome thing to listen to if you are into raw lyricism.
Ultimately, the album is going to appeal to a select audience. It’s kind of a masterpiece of hip hop lyricism and political theater but it sort of eschews what modern audiences are accustomed to when listening to an album so if you aren’t a Nas fan or fundamentally disagree with the politics being presented I can’t necessarily recommend it. In fact, you’ll probably hate it. I’m sort of torn myself. While the album is much clearer with it’s inherent message than “Hip Hop Is Dead”, I was instantly fond of and enjoyed “Hip Hop Is Dead” while I’m left feeling less than satisfied after listening to “Untiteld.” Honestly, I feel that Nas’ awesome mixtape that he did with DJ Green Lantern prior to the release of this album, The Nigger Tape, is the superior piece of music (notice I did not say album, folks). There were a couple of tracks on that mixtape that were begging for proper commercial release most notably “Esco Let’s Go” (which is my favorite Nas song in a looooooong time) and “Cops Keep Firing.” If Nas had replaced some of my lesser favorite tracks on the album with a couple of the better ones on the mixtape, I’d probably be running through the halls naked at my office screaming “Nas is back! Nasty Nas is back!” in sheer enthusiasm for the album. However, I can’t help but feel that this was the album that Nas wanted to make and he wanted to say it exactly this way. It’s too bad the world had to catch a hissy fit over the name because Nas’ is not playing this time around.