Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nas' Untitled - Review and Discussion

I'm glad I waited a little while before writing this. I was practically ready to declare the album a classic the first time I heard it, mainly because Nas exceeded my expectations lyrically. Although the true title of the LP is Nigger, Nas doesn't so much examine the word as much as he examines Black America and its history as a whole. And he does a pretty damn good job, without at all diluting his awesome wordplay and flow. Of course, as you've probably already expected or read elsewhere, the production doesn't QUITE live up to Nas' caliber of rhymes, but fuck it, there are only one or two arguably unlistenable beats here, and I think it the beats tend to complement rather than hinder him on most of the tracks. But still, I realize you cannot judge a hip-hop album for its content alone, and so Untitled just misses the instant "classic" label from a purely musical standpoint.

Then again, with a record like this, the content/theme is so central to its purpose that you have to take it into heavy consideration when judging its quality. From a thematic standpoint, it is a huge success. When's the last time a mainstream release in hip-hop has tackled issues of racism and corporate media control head on? And considering the current social/political climate in America (a black man may become president, and yet a poll shows race relations have not improved since the beginning of the decade; Jena 6; Sean Bell... etc.) I think the timing is right. Hip-hop fans may be able to look back one day and bestow "classic" status upon it for its achievement in that regard.

There is a second, underlying narrative that I haven't seen anyone explicitly mention in their reviews of the album, however, and so I'll focus on that first. Nas repeatedly reflects and discusses his transition from being a Queensbridge kid with a sick flow to becoming a cosmopolitan man who has achieved success and stardom. This also seems to have become a source of confusion for some, with more than a few writers criticizing Nas for falling into gangster cliches because they have missed the context and voice from which Nas is speaking. For example, on "Breathe," Nas raps:

"The pestilence of the ghetto informed me, as a shorty
To push nothing less than a 740
With fresh linen
Sip Pellegrino with heirs on
They sick, mixing they water when airborn"

He is not embracing materialism, but instead relating the effects of living in the ghetto on a man's ultimate goals in life (one would think this is self-evident, but alas). In the second to last track, "We're Not Alone," Nas states:

"Give us twenty more years to grow up
Already geniuses; what I mean is this
I used to worship a certain Queens police murderer
'Til I read the words of Ivan van Sertima
He inserted something in me
That made me feel worthier
Now I spit revolution
I'm his hood interpreter"

Presumably, if he was able to go from celebrating Pappy Mason to celebrating Michael Eric Dyson, Nas is saying, there is hope in changing the "get rich or die trying" mindset of black youth today. This personal dimension carries throughout the album, and is a significant reason as to why I find it so compelling.

Alright, so what exactly is Nas doing and saying about race and America? As much as I love the intro "Queens Get The Money," I must admit that it doesn't really do a good job introducing the album's concept. I love Jay Electronica's sparse piano loop, and Nas' performance is amazing, but he is kinda all over the place, announcing his love for single-parent children in one line to cleverly dissing 50 Cent the next. Untitled really takes off with "You Can't Stop Us Now," a track featuring a smooth guitar sample (also used by RZA and MF DOOM, but that doesn't stop it from being good), and Salaam Remi's enhanced bass and inclusion of horns on the hook do enough to distinguish it, anyhow. Nas raps about the unrecognized contribution that blacks have made in building America's foundation, only veering into questionable territory when he half-defends Michael Vick.

After this comes "Breathe," another personal favorite of mine. I really enjoy this relaxed, soulful beat (I'm one of a few, it seems) and this is the track that establishes that underlying theme I was discussing earlier. It also features some of Nas' most beautiful poetry on the album:

"Intense hustle
It's pain like a pinched muscle
'Til it rains and my Timbs stain my socks
'Til I dodge enough shots and the presiding judge
Slams a mallet and says 'life', I'ma guap
Then I cop, then I yacht, then I dock
Island-hopping, away from nightmare-holders
Or cowboy slangers, who shoot up any club
To see their names ring loud on some FBI poster
Must be on X or he coked up, suggesting I post the
Bail, I'm like yes, 'cause we soldiers
We just getting older
In time, we still in our prime
I can't afford a new arrest on my folder
Nigga, breathe"

After here the album suffers its first and most serious misstep, with the generic pop produced "Make The World Go Round" featuring The Game and Chris Brown. This could've easily been left off for a more hard hitting cut from the Nigger Tape (why isn't "Esco Let's Go" on here!?), but now that I think about it, I think it is a logical extension of "Breathe" as far as its content goes. The Queensbridge hustler has finally achieved success, and is celebrating in a sheer display of wealth before he realizes he must be a "Hero" (if you accuse me of reaching at this point, I won't hold it against you).

"Hero" more than makes up for the preceding song as it is most likely one of the best pop songs of Nas' career, and the album doesn't reach any comparable lows from that point on. Nas makes some key insights on institutional racism and disparity in America on the aptly titled "America":

"Too many rappers, athletes, and actors
But not enough niggas in NASA
Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion
But when it comes to residuals, they look past us
Woven into the fabric, they can't stand us
Even in white tee's, blue jeans, and red bandanas"

He rounds out the song with a verse about how women have specifically been marginalized in America since its inception, something that I wish were commented on more often in hip-hop.

I could easily continue quoting standout lines from his songs, and in fact I'm tempted to, but by now I think readers can tell that Nas just is taking his album's concept seriously. Nas stages a much-needed attack on Fox News and Bill O'Reilly in "Sly Fox," another standout, and asks his fans (specifically his privileged white ones) whether they're committed to making the ideals of racial and economic equality a reality, beyond just listening to his songs on "Testify."

Nas proceeds to use the remainder of the album to really dig in and spit his social commentary (I won't elaborate too much because this is becoming overlong). Over the title track "N.I.G.G.E.R", Nas rhymes about the creativity and ingenuity of residents of the ghetto, and notes that "Any time we mention our condition/ our history or existence/ They calling it reverse racism," all the more telling as I've already read one person unfairly accuse Nas of "race-baiting." In a light moment, Nas and Busta Rhymes get together on "Fried Chicken" and compare its allure to that of a seductress. On "Project Roach" and "Ya'll My Niggas," Nas most overtly talks about the etymology of the word "nigger" and actually explains why he feels banning or censoring the word is counter-productive. He does not make necessarily novel arguments (the destructive mindset of blacks is what needs to change, black youths have appropriated the term for positive use, etc.), but he yet again shows that he'd had his head on his shoulders when he decided to make this album, and that fears of it being a "publicity stunt" were unfounded.

After the relatively weak "We're Not Alone" (shitty R&B hook coupled with rhymes about aliens kinda kills it for me), Untitled ends on a high note with "Black President." Some may find it cheesy and cliche, but I think the chorus is brilliant. It juxtaposes the line from Tupac's "Changes" where Tupac declares "Even though it's heaven sent/we ain't ready, to have a president" with Obama announcing that Americans can "change the world!" by believing in his candidacy. I literally got goosebumps when I first heard it, if only Tupac were still alive to see this... As for the song, Nas is both hopeful and skeptical of an Obama presidency, hopeful because he feels it may ease racial tensions, skeptical because he's afraid Obama won't address the real concerns of black, urban America. Again, I don't see this as evidence of "race-baiting" or being a "crank," but instead of Nas being a serious thinker and brilliant lyricist. "Black President" is also a great example of how an average stand-alone beat compliments Nas' flow and intentions wonderfully, as DJ Green Lantern's militant drums and synths also serve as the perfect backdrop for Nas to rhyme about the issue with the urgency that he brings.

After typing all that in one sitting, I STILL feel that this is woefully inadequate, mainly because you could carry a thorough discussion with someone based on the content of almost any one of these songs, let alone the entire album. This in itself is an amazing achievement, one that already puts Untitled in contention for best hip-hop album of the year. Add Nas' lyrical wizardry and maturity on top of that, and I can't see another mainstream album coming too close in 2008 (I have yet to fully absorb Rising Down or ShapeShifters or another number of stellar alternative/underground releases). Although Illmatic-era Nas is long gone, I'm not at all disappointed with the present Nas; the Nas that spat "uzi and the army linin" wasn't mature enough to comment on society as broadly as the current one, as he admits himself.

Another great review: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/60810/nas-untitled1/

If you have any thoughts at all, please comment!


Judge Mental said...

excellent review

Trey Stone said...

yeah, agreed on this pretty much save the beats and i just think "Make the World Go Round" is wack. it's especially lame when you consider that Cool & Dre've dropped heat for no-talents like Fat Joe, Birdman and Freeway recently (well OK i kinda like Freeway, but go figure as a Jay-Z fan) and Nas picks a beat like that for a song that's probably not gonna get radio play anyway. and "Black President" in particular sounds really, really cheap, and i'm not a Polow fan, i really think all he's doing lately is diluting Timbaland/Danjahandz/Justin Timberlake's style, though i gotta at least give it up for his Ciara "Promise" beat, completely serious. i'm sure he could improve though, i like ~2002 and N.E.R.D. Neptunes and today's separate Chad Hugo/Pharrell (when he isn't being a lazy motherfucker) better than the bits of their older material i've heard.

but yeah, that whole "used to worship this guy, now i'm smarter" reminds me of a slightly different argument i've thought about a lot. namely, that the whole "get money" rap mentality can be flipped into something positive in a more direct sense. while obviously hustler rap (which Nas isn't but it gets to my point) raises a lot of moral questions, i find it more defensible than say, Snoop Dogg or Lil Wayne shouting out the Crips/Bloods because it relates in a broader sense real-life struggles. the issue, obviously, is that hustler rappers talk about coming up through selling crack/drugs. but a competitive, self-driven mentality isn't bad in and of itself. it's just that obviously the drug-dealing ----> bling, bitches and fly cars material that surrounds it in rap has been responsible for a lot of the debate about the genre's morality/social impact.

nice post man. good that this album's provoking some thoughtful discussion and Nas didn't drop an album of "These Are Our Heroes" on us lol. though i can't lie, i've found debating the merits of Lil Wayne a little more interesting. i'm just weird like that i guess

Berto said...

trey -

I probably won't listen to "Make the World Go Round" ever again, now that I've done writing this, even it if works conceptually. I can't say I'm really familiar with Cool & Dre's other work, or even Polow's, but at least I like "Hero" for what it is. Over at Joey's post someone commented that Nas should've gotten underground producers like Black Milk and Marco Polo to supply him with heat, and I'm agree with them. but who knows, Nas may not even know who they are - Black Thought was a part of a panel at my school, and when someone mentioned Atmosphere, he was clueless.

and yeah, I share your sentiments as they relate to "get money" rap. that's why I can appreciate albums like Doe or Die and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx more than other kinds of hustler rap or whatever, because they are not necessarily hustling for hustling's sake. I'm glad you liked the post, I'm also enjoying reading what everyone has to say about untitled. unfortunately I'm still largely sleeping on Wayne (listened to C3 a few times), so I wasn't able to really chime in on the 80418 conversations I saw, but I think he's easily a lot more fun than nas is, haha.