Music

Nas: Untitled

Nas's ninth studio LP lost its title. Its content, however, deserves far more dialogue than the controversy generated by what he wanted to call it.


Nas

Untitled

Website: www.nasindependenceday.com
Contributors: Nas
Label: Def Jam
First date: 2008-07-15
US Release Date: 2008-07-15
UK Release Date: 2008-07-14
Internet release date: 2008-07-15
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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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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