“Untitled” was not the first choice by Queens, N.Y., hip-hop legend Nas for his latest album, which explores black America: its ups and downs, pros and cons, stereotypes and culture.
“Untitled” was not the first choice by Queens, N.Y., hip-hop legend Nas for his latest album, which explores black America: its ups and downs, pros and cons, stereotypes and culture. His first choice was "N*****," like, with an "er" at the end. While it's not hard to see why Columbia Records would not want that, it doesn't change the fact that Nas succeeds in creating a politically conscious hip-hop record, a pretty difficult feat considering the majority of the fare on MTV nowadays.
From the opening bars of “Queens Get the Money,” which is basically just a few piano loops and Nas, it’s pretty clear that this untitled album – which features the Queens MC with an “N” whipped into his back – is not by the same kid that brought us “Illmatic.”
Witness the beginning of the second verse of “You Can’t Stop Us Now,” which takes on the Michael Vick arrest, name-checks PETA and Dateline and asks a pointed historical question all in about 10 seconds: “Yo on Dateline the other night/they was showin’ hate crimes/Gave a blood time ’cause he fought with his canine/Bestiality, humane society/Go to China, go out to dine/See what they eat/Better yet, go ask PETA/which animal died to make suede/Without suede, would you have survived the Dark Ages?”
Far be it from me to call Belly a landmark film, but ever since he played a character who longed to learn more about himself and his African roots, Nas seems to have taken on the role in real life. He brought more political weight to his rhymes, which were always sharply detailed anyway, but there was an extra dimension to many of his best verses on songs like “One Mic” and “My Country.”
It’s hard to fault Columbia and Def Jam for not wanting a record by one of their premiere hip-hop artists to have a racial slur plastered all over it, but, I mean, that’s kind of the reason Nas wanted to call it that, I would guess.
Musically, the album has the most pop touches of any Nas record: lots of big synths, R&B hooks by Chris Brown and Keri Wilson. In some places, it works very well; the tinkling melody line and big beat in “Hero” has a very Kanye West, hip-hop-in-space vibe. In other places (“Make the World Go Round”), it just kind of sounds plastic and glossed-over. For someone like me, who first nodded his head to Nas via the dirty, dusty sounds of his 1994 classic, “Illmatic,” it would be heaven to hear these rhymes over beats by DJ Premier and Pete Rock, but whatchagonnado?
Lyrically, Nas is on point throughout the entire disc, throwing barbs at hypocrisy in “America,” taking issue with Rupert Murdoch (“the sly fox/Cyclops/locked in the idiot box”) over rock guitars in “Sly Fox” and depicting the life of a creepy-crawly midnight snacker over the jazz-inflected “Project Roach.”
And while the record execs kept it off the cover, they couldn’t stop Nas from naming a song “N*****,” and it’s certainly the centerpiece of the album, a stark depiction of the perils and paradoxes of black America that touches on the past, present and future as he sees it (“They say we N-I, double G, E-R/We are much more/Still we choose to ignore the obvious/Man this history don’t acknowledge us/We were scholars way before colleges/We are the slave and the master/What you lookin’ for?/You are the question and the answer”). Even so, the album’s most creative and interesting move is definitely “Fried Chicken,” where Nas and Busta Rhymes use the metaphor of a love-hate relationship to explore the pros and cons of fried chicken and pork products.
The delicate art of the hip-hop message song is difficult enough by itself; putting together a whole message album is downright dangerous. With this many heavy songs, it’s hard to avoid the occasional image of Keenan Ivory Wayans yelling “MESSAGE!”
But by and large, Nas’s deft wordplay overcomes occasionally weak production to craft a record that’s got enough pop moves to keep the mainstream listening – although it’s tough to figure what would make a good single… maybe “Make the World Go Round” or “Hero” – and enough political exploration to get the average pop-radio listener to think twice.
Patrick Varine writes for the Sussex (Dela.) Countain.