The Nigger movement has been a lonely crusade for Nasir Jones. As a younger artist, he was regularly blasted for allegedly selling out his musical integrity. Years later, a mature Nas now sees his attempts to bring relevant social issues to Hip-Hop cynically dismissed as a pseudo gimmick to gain exposure. But after all the comments and discussion, the final word will always be the quality of the music. And with the recently censored album name now christened Untitled (Def Jam), Nas seeks to validate himself after months of intense pressure from fans and media alike.
The album begins with the haunting sparse piano chords of “Queens Get the Money.” The lack of drums makes the track initially sound abrasive; as Nas weaves his rhymes on and off beat. But it is the dissonance of Jay Electronica’s production that accentuates Nas’ lyrics midway. The Queensbridge poet paraphrases elements from Rakim’s classic fourth verse on “My Melody” to take some piercing jabs at former apprentice 50 Cent.
Regular collaborator Salaam Remi delivers a bass heavy, jazz infused rendition of “Can’t Stop Us Now.” The now popular sample has seen recent renditions from MF Doom, Mos Def, and the RZA. However, Remi makes the piece unique by incorporating jazz trumpet chords, the soulful crooning of Eban Thomas of The Stylistics, and the authoritative spoken word of the Last Poets. Nas’ rhymes remain on point as he takes aim at our accepted beliefs on early American patriotism (“Betsy Ross sowed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigger with her to help her old ass”).
Recent criticism against Nas’ albums has been his use of somber, demure production, which the Queens MC has made strides in addressing. On the graceful “Breathe,” the melodic rhythms blend effortlessly with his urges for us to “exhale” on the stresses of American life. The celebratory “Make The World Go Round,” by far the most commercial and radio aimed track, works mainly due to the lyrical chemistry between The Game and Nas.
However, the slick production starts to wane thin by the Stargate produced “America.” The continued bombardment of synth originated cadences (especially after the sonorous but enjoyable lead single “Hero”) starts to pull the listener out of the album. Still, Nas’ verses remain potent, especially a standout third verse criticizing the sexism and imperialism of Western society.
The LP gets back on track with the rock-tinged “Sly Fox.” Over PE reminiscent guitar riffs, Nas cleverly assaults the moral authority of Fox News on the basis of their manipulation of news and business dealings with Youtube and Myspace (“Only Fox that I love was the Redd one /Only black man the at Fox love is in jail or a dead one”). With “Testify,” Nas creatively crafts the song in the conversation flow of “Book Of Rhymes,” while questioning whether his fans are ready for social action beyond the music.
First seen on the now classic “I Gave You Power,” Nas’ expertise at personification is once again on display with “Project Roach” and “Fried Chicken.” On the former, the Last Poets appear again to ridicule the NAACP’s “funeral” for the word nigger, while Nas personifies the insect as a metaphor for the derogatory term. With the latter track, Busta Rhymes joins in as both MC’s skewer the stereotype of Black eating habits over Mark Ronson’s southern blues styled production.
The criticism is not just directed outward, as Nas questions his own materialism on the reflective and communal “Y’all My Niggas.” He continues that trend on the ethereal, “We’re Not Alone,” where Nas expresses regret at previously glorifying killers like Pappy Mason over figures such as historian Ivan Van Sertima.
On Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas made the mistake of presenting that topic as a loose theme over the album and expecting listeners to pick up subliminal messages. With Untitled, he’s able to not only cohesively explain his stance on the word nigger, but detail its use throughout history on social, political, and judicial levels. And despite the dense subject matter, Nas’ varied lyrical presentations keep the opus from ever becoming preachy or condescending.
Notwithstanding minor missteps in sequencing and production, Untitled has delivered on its potential as a cogent, intellectually honest piece of art. And like its predecessor The Nigger Tape, Nasir Jones has crafted not only a career highlight in his catalogue, but the most thought-provoking and challenging mainstream Hip-Hop album in a long time.