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Beats Per Millennium - Nas: Untitled

Nas: Untitled

by Mike Denslow

It is our goal at BPM to review five albums a week and to review all major new releases in a timely fashion…preferably the week of the release. That said, this being our inaugural week we are still trying to get a few kinks out. We have all been working very hard to get the site up and running and when we looked around late Wednesday night we realized that we did not have a new review ready for today. This is hardly a disaster considering how amazingly sparse this week has been in the release department, but we do hope to stay on top of things so we apologize. On Friday we will run a review of Young Jeezy’s The Recession. For the moment, I have chosen to reprint my review of Nas’s Untitled that I wrote for Consequence of Sound last month. I hope you enjoy it.

In case you missed the memo, the new Nas album is untitled. Or it is called Untitled. Either way it is not called “Nigger,” as Nas had hoped. After caving to his record company and dropping the risqué title, he tried to stick it to The Man by giving it a boring one. I don’t think The Man cares.

Nas wants the fans to call the album “Nigger” anyway. I’m not going to do that. If Nas had truly wanted to rock the boat he could have released this album on his own and called it whatever he wanted. Instead he played it safe. I don’t necessarily blame him for this, but I am a bit disappointed in him and I don’t have much interest in referring to it by a title that he is not interested in using himself. Plus, I’m white so I’m not sure what the rules would have been on that (insert the smiley icon of your choice.)

The first time I heard Nas’s proposed album title was on Fox News. I can’t recall which particular blow-hard was hosting the show, but it wasn’t Bill O’Reilly. In typical Fox News fashion he began the story with a boisterous, “You’ll never believe what THIS gangsta rapper wants to call his new album!” He then opened the panel discussion by turning to the resident black man and saying, “What’s going on here? I thought we’d gotten rid of this word years ago!”

And so it went. Nas was charged with gun possession when he was a teenager. Nas is playing at Virginia Tech and that is an affront to everyone who died there. Nas uses naughty words. Nas is resurrecting racism. Nas is a terrorist.

Nobody really disputes that Nas’s most creative music is behind him. Go ahead and insert the obligatory “It’s no Illmatic” comment if you must. But what Nas has lost in musical artistry he has made up for with his startling ability to convince the American mainstream media that he is a far more interesting artist than he actually is. And ironically, that in itself has turned him into one of the most interesting artists out today.

Had this album been given the title Nas intended it to have, it probably would have been the most appropriately titled album anyone has put out in years. In an age where practically every rapper is trying his hand at loosely based concept albums, this one actually may be the closest anyone has come to a cohesive theme.

The album was going to be called “Nigger” because nearly half the songs on the album are literally a deconstruction of the word and its use in society. Practically the entire second half of the album is dedicated to this subject to some extent, starting with the would-be title track, which is set against a pretty nice beat by DJ Toomp (if everything Nas releases has to be compared to Illmatic, I move that everything Toomp releases has to be compared to “What You Know.” And “N.I.G.G.E.R.” is no “What You Know.” The only thing Toomp did that was “What You Know” was Jeezy’s “I Luv It”. Which was, ummm, almost exactly “What You Know.” End completely unrelated rant.) The songs that follow (including one called “Y’all My Niggas”…just sayin’) expand on the topic.

I’m not sure if Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did not realize what this album was about or just didn’t care. I have a hard time believing that either one of them would have disagreed with the relevance of the topic. More likely they just completely do not understand art or parody, as evidenced by the Read A Book fiasco a couple years ago.

Unfortunately, such thorough analysis of a racial epithet, while certainly thought provoking, does not necessarily make for an enjoyable listen. It’s much better suited for the Randall Kennedy book that oddly enough didn’t receive such uproar over the title (though the book was actually pretty boring too.) That’s not really a knock against Nas. He has put out an above average album with songs that make you think. But with such an extensive catalog of more enjoyable music I find it hard to believe that I am ever going to get the urge to listen to this album in future years.

Part of the problem is that Nas, while still a very serviceable lyricist, is just lacking the subtlety and allusion that once made him such an intriguing listen. At the height of his career he was a wordsmith and a storyteller, painting works of art that were several layers deep. On Untitled he attacks some of our nation’s most pressing racial matters in a straightforward manner that is biting but not nearly as clever.

But as tiring as the moralizing and straight-forward political material can become, Nas fares much worse when he dumbs it down, such as on the dull “We Make the World Go Round,” a track that may have actually been okay if not for a drawn out bridge and chorus by a showboating Chris Brown. Unfortunately, this is the stuff singles are made of so don’t be surprised to catch it on your local Clear Channel affiliate at some point.

Aside from Chris Brown and The Game (who appears on the same song), Untitled’s most notable guests are The Last Poets. The Harlem collective of spoken word artists and poets sprung out of the Black Power movement of the late 60s and has often been cited as one of hip hop’s largest influences. They are a welcome addition to this album, appearing on two songs, including “Project Roach” with the words, “It is absolutely silly and unproductive to have a funeral for the word nigger when the actions continue.”

One moment when everything does click is the Mark Ronson produced “Fried Chicken.” Busta Rhymes shows up to play Flava Flav to Nas’s Chuck D and the two emcees deliver a clever, humorous, and socially conscious statement on the ups and downs of fried chicken. The song is short, but the beat is hot, and for a brief moment two over-the-hill legends of the rap game show the world that they can still bring it.

But for the most part, Untitled is a disappointingly average album. There are not a lot of blatantly negative things to say about this album, but it has very few highlights. Even after several listens there are not many moments that stand out in my mind. The album plays out like Nas just put things on cruise control, but I honestly don’t believe this to be true. I actually think that Nas took Untitled more seriously than anything he has made in years, but even trying his hardest he was unable to deliver a product that was half as entertaining as the public controversy surrounding it.

Posted by Mike Denslow at Sep 04, 2008 02:46 AM