[16 July 2008]
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”.
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.