Make That Two Hot Albums Every 14 Years.
This is not Nas’s eponymous album. This album is Untitled; its original title was Nigger. When Def Jam inevitably caved in to the backlash from media and retail outlets and prohibited Nas from naming his ninth official studio album after what is arguably the most taboo word in US English, he made a brilliant move by simply changing the name to Untitled—a title that ironically gives more power to the album’s intended message. If there is a central theme running throughout Untitled, it’s the continuous, almost subconscious negligence among certain factions of mainstream America to accept contributions of non-whites into their culture—most notably African-Americans and hip-hop. The accomplishment of the new title is that it provides a symbol for the relative anonymity of some of the greatest minds of our generation, particularly among those who don’t have any reservations about including the original title in their vocabulary.
Contrary to what many might have expected, and diverging from what has become the standard for racially-charged hip-hop, there is nothing militant about Untitled. There is not a single line in any of these songs that would lead one to believe that Nas blames any particular sect of people outright for the racial inequality that exists in America—he blames money and greed. His beliefs come across as more MLK than Malcolm X, which is ironic given the outrage over its original title, because Untitled promotes peace more than anything else.
It’s apparent that Nas was very meticulous in his research for Untitled; he maintains authority over every topic he addresses, and never seems over his head in either his politics or his philosophies. His last album, 2006’s Hip-Hop Is Dead, attempted to base a theme around one statement, and, though it contained good songs, the result was a conceptually opaque piece of work. Untitled, by contrast, sounds like the most fully-realized work of Nas’s career—one on which each song warrants mention.
Untitled starts out with the percussion-less, piano-driven intro “Queens Get the Money”, produced by enigmatic underground prodigy Jay Electronica, over which Nas uses his exceptional gift for imagery to introduce listeners to the world he is about to address. “You Can’t Stop Us Now” explores African contributions to American society over a beat which interpolates “Message from a Black Man”. “Breathe”, an expression of the desire for artistic and social freedom is followed by two of the best-executed pop songs of Nas’s career—a style where his past failings have severely hurt his mainstream recognition.
“We Make the World Go Round”, with The Game and Chris Brown, is a catchy declaration of the importance of black artists in popular culture. The lead single, “Hero”, is Nas’s triumphant celebration of his confidence in light of controversy. On it, he defiantly addresses the racial double-standard associated with his title controversy when he raps “Try tellin’ Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joe they can’t sing what’s in their soul / So Untitled it is / I never changed nothin’”.
“America” is an eerie, dark, euro-pop-sounding, synth-driven track over which Nas attempts to demystify the concept of our “great nation”, and ends with the chilling line “How far are we really from third world savagery? / When the empire fall / Imagine how crazy that’ll be”. “Sly Fox” is a vicious attack on Rupert Murdoch’s news empire, which examines the corporate influence in racial identity—most likely triggered by Bill O’Reilly’s condemnation of Nas’s invitation to perform at post-massacre Virginia Tech. “Testify” is a slow, blunted track over which a mournful Nas questions the true dedication of his fans in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)” is a keen analysis of black identity and cultural pride. The title track contemplates what it really means to be a revolutionary over a fast, dark beat with a continuously looped sample that states “They did not have the power to stop Louis Farrakhan”.
Two concept songs follow. “Fried Chicken” examines the self-destructive lifestyles that many African-Americans are born into as a double-metaphor; it symbolizes bad habits in the form of the unhealthy, stereotypically black food, which is further personified as an irresistible “sly vixen”. “Project Roach” is a response to Al Sharpton’s “funeral for the N-word” that compares those branded with the word to cockroaches, both of which will “never disappear”.
The first of the final three tracks on Untitled is “Y’all My Niggas”, which celebrates the etymological evolution of “nigger”, an epithet, to “nigga”, a term of endearment within the hip-hop community, as a victory of civil rights. “We’re Not Alone” is a recognition of the humanism of all people and a mournful plea for global, racial harmony. “Black President” might superficially sound like a sentimental, will.i.am-style “Yes We Can” endorsement of Barack Obama, but Nas’s lyrics are more complex. He articulates his hope in the man whose election would, just in terms of symbolism, be a huge victory for post-racialism and could radically improve America’s image in the rest of the world. But he also gets dark when he expresses his fears of a potential assassination and his doubts of whether, upon election, Obama would really live up to his promise of hope. The looped 2pac vocal of “We ain’t ready to have a Black President” also adds to the ominous pessimism veiled in the song.
The O’Reilly attacks as well as the title controversy seem to have added exponentially to Nas’ inspiration, because all throughout Untitled, he sounds more relevant than he has in years. For the first time since his battle with Jay-Z, he really sounds like he has something to say. With consistently good production—an attribute that has too often evaded his albums—Nas’s typically exceptional lyrics have finally been given the proper stage from which they demand listening.
I don’t like to compare past and present works of artists, because contexts and times change, but that combination of lyrical inspiration and consistent production hasn’t happened since Illmatic. His insight in dealing with black identity and race relations is staggering, and he never once sounds pretentious or preachy. He addresses the issues from a mature, intellectual, and rational point of view. Though he expresses his anger, he never resorts to what he refers to on “N.I.G.G.E.R.” as “reverse racism”, and calls out those who do, like when he refers to Obama’s former pastor as “Jeremiah Wrong”. He explains his new philosophy on “We’re Not Alone” when he claims, “I used to worship a certain Queens police-murderer / Until I read the words of Ivan van Sertima / He inserted something in me that made me feel worthier”. Just as Bob Dylan became music’s representative of Beat generation writers, Nas has become hip-hop’s literary ambassador to the values of scholars like Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and the aforementioned Sertima.
There is a cult-following of fans who try to declare each post-Illmatic Nas album as his second classic, only to later retract those claims. Some have been close, but there have consistently been certain aspects which have thrown things off. It takes considerable time to determine whether an album is a true classic, but I have no pretentions in saying that, after immersing myself in it as much as I could during the time I’ve had it, I really think Untitled could be that album. It’s one of those rare occasions where I’ve been reminded exactly why I love hip-hop music. This is Nas’s Blood on the Tracks. Illmatic was stylistically brilliant and incalculably influential, but Untitled is a more mature, emotionally-driven, and philosophically-complex piece of work. It’s also a masterpiece.