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...