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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
Tracks six and seven...

America


The production here comes from Stargate, the Nowegian duo who laid the track for Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”. Dark, slow synthesizer chords that occasionally break into quick, clubby stutters with partially vocoded female vocals over a break-beat give this an emotionally detached, Euro-poppy feel. The song’s mood and Nas’ delivery are reminiscent of one his greatest-ever songs: “You’re the Man” off 2001’s Stillmatic.


“You’re the Man” was Nas’ mournful appeal for fans to wake up and recognize he was still the same Illmatic emcee at a time when his artistic relevance was being seriously questioned. “America” is a similar plea for citizens to break out of the mystique of our nation’s concept and recognize that things are not right; we are not past the fight for civil rights and we cannot remain prosperous forever. Both songs contain the seamless blend of poetry and prose that has always been Nas’ strongest asset as an emcee. His words induce chills whether or not you pay attention to what he is actually saying. In that respect, “America” is the most Illmatic-esque song on Untitled. America’s ambassador to the Queensbridge housing projects has grown into a worldwide representative of the African American experience with the same eloquence.


Nas’ lyrics here mostly deal with various hypocrisies present in popular opinion. He addresses the notion that hip-hop culture is destructive to society: “If all I saw was gangsters / Coming up as a youngster / Pussy and money the only language I clung ta / Claim ta, unrolled myself up to become one / Ain’t ya happy I chose rap?” and later, “Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion? / But when it comes to residuals, they look past us / Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us / Even in white tee’s, blue jeans, and red bandanas.” He claims, “We in chronic need of a second look of the law books / And the whole race dichotomy / Too many rappers, athletes, and actors / But not enough niggas in NASA.” Some of his most powerful lines come in the third verse when he talks about the plight of women since our nation’s inception: “Took a knife, split a woman naval / Took her premature baby / Let her man see you rape her / If I could travel to the 1700’s / I’d push a wheelbarrow full of dynamite / Through your covenant / Love to sit in on the Senate / And tell the whole government / Y’all don’t treat women fair / She read about herself in the bible / Believing she the reason sin is here / You played her, with an apron / Like bring me my dinner, dear / She the nigger here.” The dark song end with Nas disturbingly pondering, “How far are we really from third-world savagery / When the empire fall, imagine how crazy that’ll be.”


“America” is the most poetic song on Untitled. It is a strong testimonial on the theme of oppression which, like the rest of the album, despite implication, never explicitly names the oppressors. This adds to Nas’ recurring notion that people of all colors and creeds have endured periods in which they were, figuratively speaking, “niggers”.


Sly Fox


Following a song that attempts to break the cocoon of popular thought comes this scathing examination Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its ownership of FOX News, which has become the largest symbol of the American propaganda-machine (unless you’re a neo-conservative, which would make it the Huffington Post).


stic.man from Dead Prez provides a hard-thumping beat with heavily distorted hard-rock guitars to set the mood for Nas’ angry response to Bill O’Reilly’s bullshit campaign to have him taken off the list of performers for the “welcome back” concert to begin the first post-massacre semester at Virginia Tech.


O’Reilly based his entire argument around the song “Shoot ‘Em Up”, an out-of-context line from “Made You Look” and the fact that Nas had once been convicted on a gun-charge with no examination of the circumstances that led to it. He tried to portray Nas as some violent gangsta rapper who was just going to taunt a bunch of terrorized kids. He even went as far as to call for the firing of the university’s president. “Shoot ‘Em Up” was on Nastradamus, an album that was a consequence of the incredible, original version of I Am… being virtually the first major album to be leaked online in 1998. Corporate interests behind Nas’ music, not knowing how to handle such a situation, scrapped most of the album and forced him to record a bunch of commercial songs like “Shoot ‘Em Up” (violence sells) to compensate with two albums instead of one; the result was the uneven, official version of I Am… and the mostly bad Nastradamus. The line from “Made You Look” was a metaphor (who could expect FOX News to understand metaphor?). Finally, though I don’t know the specifics behind Nas’ gun charge, I know he is a successful man in a world filled with jealousy, living in a violent city; I would hope he has some protection.


Nas takes News Corp – which also owns MySpace – to task for enabling child predators and “monopolizing news / Your views / And the channel you choose.” He implies that their influence has spread across other networks in the best few bars of the song: “I watch CBS / And I See B.S. / Tryin’ to track us down with GPS / Make a nigga wanna invest in PBS.” He also calls FOX out for the hypocrisy in their condemnation of hip-hop in light of the violence in Hollywood and in shady foreign policy: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill / But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill? / What about Cheney and Halliburton? / The backdoor deals on oil fields / How’s Nas the most violent person?” Nas was smart to construct “Sly Fox” as an indictment on the entire machine behind FOX News instead of perpetuating a personal beef with one of its talking heads; Bill-O himself only gets a single shout out: “O’Reilly? Oh really?”.


With hip-hop’s status as a politically progressive art form, it’s a relief to see an artist putting real effort and research into attacking what might be the largest threat to liberal politics in America.


+ Parts: one, two, three


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Tuesday, Jul 15, 2008
Tracks four and five: the triumphant pop songs...

We Make the World Go Round (Featuring The Game and Chris Brown)


Miami-based duo Cool & Dre provide the production for this. The track has a feel similar to their work on some of DJ Khaled’s massive posse cuts. The beat contains looped synths, hand claps, a quiet 808 baseline, a harmonizing Chris Brown, and a few other elements mixed in. There is a lot going on, but it’s the exultant synthesizer melody that rises from the layers of sounds and becomes the essence of the song; Chris Brown repeats the song’s title in the chorus to the same, turned-up melody. Before each repetition in the hook, Nas provides quick one-liners, proposing toasts between hustlers, gangstas, ballers, and finally “all us”.


The deliberate, mainstream sound of the song seems more intended to bridge a gap between Nas—whose appeal in today’s hip-hop market is more underground—and popular rappers of the moment than to earn radio-play. It can be considered as sort of a peace offering to mainstream rappers—those hustlers, gangstas, and ballers—who were offended by Nas’s Hip-Hop is Dead campaign two years ago. A lot of hip-hop fans view pop-concessions by respected artists as immature moves, but this song proves quite the opposite. Nas has matured since his last album; he has abandoned his rockist sentiments and learned to accept what is popular now, however far it deviates from what purists consider “real hip-hop”, as legitimate art. This change of philosophy is best categorized when he mentions his own platinum records but also congratulates the rappers of today’s market by telling them, “Y’all is ringtone-platinum / But 99 cents adds up / I don’t hate ‘em / I congratulate him.” The hip-hop and R&B generation gap is finally bridged when Nas ends his last verse, boasting about having “the New York prince and young Mike Jackson on the same track”.


The braggadocio in the lyrics is celebratory of the level of importance black artists have gained in entertainment worldwide and, consequently, the affect they have had on public consciousness, hence the song’s title. The Game’s second verse is impressive, but its contribution to the song is somewhat minor causing his usually strong presence to get a bit lost in the mix. In the end though, “We Make the World Go Round” is a triumphant ode to African American success that fits well into the context of the album.


Hero (Featuring Keri Hilson)


Speaking of Nas’ acceptance of popular trends, I’m really happy he ended up working with Polow Da Don on this album. If synthesizers and Southern rappers were more respected amongst hip-hop purists, Polow’s work on last year’s Rich Boy album would have earned him respect just short of a DJ Premier-type level. Plus, he has been the driving force behind a lot of genuinely good songs from uninteresting artists. His beat on “Hero” is incredible. The song starts out with a chime-sounding loop over hard drums and from there goes through all kinds of movements, incorporating different synths, electric guitars and other sounds. Polow has a true composer’s sense of music. Whether dropping the beat or pulling and inserting sounds, he always seems to find the right combination of elements to properly emphasize what the lyrics are saying. Keri Hilson comes in for the huge, synthed-out chorus and the song has a very cinematic feel.


Nas addresses the whole N-Word controversy more directly here than anywhere else on the album. His insanely energetic verses serve as a defiant affirmation of his career accomplishments in the face of naysayers and a statement of desire to carry on and fight in his role as people’s champion. He keeps things relatively vague until the third verse, where he applies all of the preceding sentiment to specifically address the censorship of his title:


This Universal apartheid
I’m hog-tied, the corporate side
Blocking y’all from going to stores and buying it
First L.A. and… [Doug Morris, censored in released version]… was riding with it
But Newsweek article startled big wigs
They said, Nas, why is you trying it?
My lawyers only see the Billboard charts as winning
Forgetting - Nas the only true rebel since the beginning
Still in musical prison, in jail for the flow
Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joel
They can’t sing what’s in their soul
So Untitled it is
I never changed nothin’
But people remember this
If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids
With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit
I can’t sit and watch it
So, shit, I’ma drop it
Like it or not
You ain’t gotta cop it…
…No matter what the CD called
I’m unbeatable, y’all!


“Hero” is Nas’ best radio-friendly song since “If I Ruled the World” (“One Mic” was a masterpiece but I wouldn’t call its sound “radio-friendly”, despite the fact that it was a hit). With a producer and singer involved who are both currently hot, this might be his best chance to seriously break into the mainstream since 2001, when he was one side of the highest-profile battle in rap history. No hip-hop artist has ever sounded this relevant so many years after what a lot consider his prime.


To be continued…


+ Parts: one two


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
We constantly hear the argument that people aren't listening to music any more. How is that even possible when there's so much of it?

“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.


Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart? 


Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.


Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.


Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.


Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.


Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.


There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.


In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008
Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power.

Part Two: Make a Joyful Noise Unto JAH: Culture’s International Herb


Culture is immortal for their 1977 tour de force, Two Sevens Clash, one of a handful of albums that can justifiably be uttered in the same sentence as Heart of the Congos. Unlike the Congos, however, Culture continued to make important records after the summer of ’77, and were still going strong when bandleader Joseph Hill abruptly died—while on tour—in 2006.


Anyone in the know already knows two things: no self-respecting fan of music can tolerate the absence of Two Sevens Clash from their collections, and Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power. A single line from any Culture song makes it abundantly, wonderfully apparent that Joseph Hill was put on this earth, above all other things, to sing.


Fans can—and do—argue over what the second-most essential Culture album is, and most votes would probably be split between Baldhead Bridge (1978) or Cumbolo (1979), both of which are entirely worthy of consideration. But, for me, the closest they ever came to Two Sevens Clash is 1979’s International Herb. This release is endorsed and derided for a simple and silly reason: it’s blatant title (and if that wasn’t sufficiently provocative, the cover, featuring the group blazing spliffs in front of a huge, healthy marijuana plant, leaves little to the imagination).


And that is an appropriate enough segue to discuss—in perfunctory fashion—the dilemma of drugs and music. I mean dilemma in regards to certain types of music being automatically (and lazily—and in many instances, erroneously) associated with drugs. Or to put it more bluntly (pun, obviously, intended): music for which the utilization of mind-altering chemicals is imperative. This topic could, and should, be an entire discussion unto itself, but for the purposes of brevity let’s focus on the album at hand.


Clearly, the title track is an anthem for marijuana; it is also—and in this it is similar to the vast majority of reggae music—an endorsement for acceptance and understanding. In other words, this is post-‘60s hippie music that uptight politicians and the lemmings that follow them—the ones who most need to hear it—can easily assail as “drug music”. Aside from the myriad sociological reasons this type of dismissal epitomizes a typical myopia (and, in matters of appraising art, one that is not restricted to right-leaning reactionaries), it does the music a considerable disservice.


The reality of this music is quite simple: one need not be under the influence to appreciate it. Indeed, an argument might be made (and I’m about to make it) that it can be more fully enjoyed without the aid of any type of chemicals, be they smoked, snorted or swallowed. The sheer musicianship is so tight and first-rate that it is an insult (to the music, to the musicians) for one to even imply that any type of “full effect” can only be attained through the assistance of a substance. This, of course, does not apply solely to reggae music: so many great bands (Pink Floyd in particular leaps to mind) are denigrated and, in some ironic instances, lauded, for being ideal music to accompany an altered state of consciousness. How many times have you heard someone proclaim: if you aren’t high, you won’t be able to truly experience (insert album or artist here)? What a load of bollocks. That certain types of music do undoubtedly lend themselves to certain experiences is undeniable, but the best art is never so one dimensional or short-sighted. In fact, an alternate case can also be made that only an engaged and clear mind can fully fathom the depths and dedication of serious artistic expression. None of this is intended to demonize the harmless (or even the occasionally harmful) use of any type of intoxicants—that, again, is a very separate and sometimes serious matter. Again, the only issue here is the facile association (and/or promotion) of drugs and music, because on a purely aesthetic level it debases both the art and the artist.


So, getting back to Culture and International Herb: what’s it all about, then? “Make a joyful noise unto Jah,” Hill sings in “The Land Where We Belong”, and that pretty well captures the M.O.—not only of this particular album, but Culture’s career. As is often the case, the thematic scope of so many reggae songs revolves around Rasta, and that means a heavy rotation of tributes to Jah, the righteousness of Upfull Living (to quote Augustus Pablo) and the solidarity of underdogs everywhere. What separates Culture’s treatment of these familiar concerns, aside from Hill’s inimitable voice and the typically top-tier musicianship of the backing band, is the conviction with which the material is conveyed. Hill is equal parts preacher and cheerleader: speaking tough truths about intolerance and injustice, but also encouraging (often exhorting) the downtrodden to rise up. Some of the song titles, “Too Long in Slavery”, “Ethiopians Waan Guh Home”, and “Rally Around Jahoviah’s Throne”, provide a glimpse into Hill’s heart and mind. This, for the most part, is very serious music about very serious matters. And yet, Hill can’t help but make just about all of it sound celebratory and life-affirming. If, quite understandably, you read the words “life-affirming” and reflexively start to gag, I understand. I also encourage you, if you’ve not already done so, to immediately improve the quality of your life by ensuring that Joseph Hill has a place in it.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
Tracks two and three...

You Can’t Stop Us Now


Salaam Remi, with whom Nas has worked more than any other producer this decade, based this track around a sample of the Whatnaut’s “Message From a Black Man”. Unlike RZA, who recently sampled the same track on his latest Bobby Digital album in raw form, Remi masks the central melody in a heavy baseline. The sound actually makes me wonder whether he sampled the song or just interpolated it. He also adds soulful blaxplotation-sounding horns as a lead into the chorus, sung by Eban Brown, who has been a member of both the Delfonics and the Stylistics throughout his career. He replaces “me” with “us” in his version of the classic hook. The track overall has a more polished yet similar feel to that of previous Remi-produced Nas songs like “Made You Look” and “Thief’s Theme”.


Nas’ two verses on “You Can’t Stop Us Now” run through a range of topics which add together to make the song a singular, astute statement of Black Pride. His first verse is an exploration of African American history in a series of poetic, internally-rhymed individual statements which are able to stand unaccompanied as powerful proclamations; his first line is: “From Willie Lynch to Willie Hutch” – six words that, alone, serve as a potent summation of the plight and triumph of blacks in America. Other lines like “from gold to shackles and back to gold” as well as “slave food turned to soul food” have similar effects and the verse ends with Nas claiming, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass.” I could not imagine a better verse examining African American heritage with such celebratory vitriol.


Nas approaches the second verse from a present-time point-of-view and assumes the task of exposing hypocrisies in the interpretations of African versus European culture. He uses the Michael Vick case as a talking point: “Gave a Blood time / Cause he fought with his canine / Bestiality / Humane Society / Go to China, see how they dine / See what they eat / Better yet ask PETA whoever / Which animal makes suede? / If not for suede would you have survived the Dark Ages?” He goes on to address Sammy Davis Jr. who “helped pave the way for Southern crankers and them Harlem shakers”, which has led Nas to assert, in the ending of his verse, “Now we getting our papers / They try to censor the words / To stop our money coming / But you can’t escape us / Haters.”


The Last Poets declaration, in between the first verse and the chorus, that, “as James Baldwin says, you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers a nigger” provides a literal link between Nas’ poetry and the original concept of Untitled, a discourse on the word “nigger” and an attempt to strip it of its rhetorical power.


Breathe


This song’s keyboard-driven production from J. Myers and Dustin Moore has a smoothed-out ‘90s R&B feel to it. The beat is not bad by any means, it’s slightly unremarkable. Its breezy style makes it easy for one to hear the song without actually listening to it. That’s unfortunate because “Breathe” is probably Nas’ most personal song on the album and his rhyme-schemes are awe-inspiring.


The lyrics are concerned with the true meaning of freedom in a free country, especially for a high-profile black man. His verses touch upon the theme of subliminal racism in white America which is present throughout the album. We get a glimpse of him at his most somber while contemplating his own identity. His paranoid, seemingly infinitely internally rhymed verses run quickly through his various anxieties (child-custody battles, police racial profiling, money and fame) and he portrays a world where everyone either wants part of him or wishes him harm; his chorus repeats the question: “Can a nigga just breathe?”


The concept of the song fits well into the whole theme of Untitled. It is the lament of a man who, despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to society, still feels unable to transcend the American subconscious from which a word like “nigger” was able to become dominant.


Had the production been a bit more interesting, this would have been an instant classic. It’s still damn good though.


To be continued…


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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