The original title of Nas’s ninth studio album was, as you no doubt have heard, Nigger, and the accompanying Green Lantern-produced mixtape (The Nigger Tape) still bears that title. Though Untitled shucked the titular slur (apparently due to pressure from retailers, not civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton), the word “nigger” and its variant “nigga” are still the focus of the lyrics. I wrote a complete draft of this review yesterday close-reading many of the instances on Untitled where the word shows up, but discarded the whole thing. As a white guy born in the South 15 years after the Civil Rights era ended (according to Wikipedia, anyway), I don’t have any great insights into why or when people of any color do or can use the word. I’ve just heard it a lot. All I know is that I was hoping I would learn something from Untitled, the way I learned from Richard Pryor’s “Africa” routine—which serves as the outro on Nigger Tape, by the way—but I don’t think I have.
Nas depicts the word as hurtful and oppressive on “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)” (“They say we N.I.-double-G.E.R./We are/Much more”) and samples and quotes authors as diverse as James Baldwin and Paul Mooney to give a sense of the word’s history, but he’s just as dismissive of his elders from the Civil Rights movement: Al Sharpton, natch, but also Martin Luther King Jr., whose “rhetoric” is worthless since it “didn’t help me get this Porsche two-seater” (“Y’all My Niggas”). On the cover art Nas exhibits a slave’s lash marks, but in the lyrics he’s often tirelessly materialistic, citing on “Makes the World Go Round” that “seeing me is like seeing through the lens of Helmut Newton’s camera.” Bling-baring, blasé or otherwise is inherent to hip-hop, but I think we were all expecting something a little more against the grain.
Nas’s flow is still the high-water mark of hip-hop lyricism. So even if the lyrics are vacant, at least they’re pretty. Nas’s delivery is always captivating in its breathlessness; his timbre is glaringly rough and unpolished in contrast to his startlingly clever rhymes and imagery. On opener “Queens Get the Money,” which disses 50 Cent, critics and the average rap fan all in a single verse, he declares, “I’m over their heads/Like a bulimic on a see-saw.” On the single “Hero” he simultaneously boasts about his supremacy as a rhymer and laments the (racist?) restrictions of the record industry with his characteristically elaborate lyrical patterns: “Nas, the only true rebel since the beginning/Still in musical prison, in jail for the flow/Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel/They can’t sing what’s in they soul.” “America” is a dystopian vision like past achievements “N.Y. State of Mind” and “One Mic.” “Black President” builds on the famous 2Pac sample from “Changes” (“Although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready…”) to celebrate the Obama campaign with a refreshing, or perhaps just timely, dose of skepticism: “I’m thinking I can trust this brother/But will he keep it way real?”
The lyrics are all terrific; the beats, not so much. Illmatic nailed hip-hop’s greatest producers and still congealed into a gorgeous whole greater than the sum of its parts. But in the years since, Nas’s taste for production has been sporadically successful and widely uneven, and that’s the case on Untitled as well. Nas is best supported on the starker, more intense tracks like the tingly “Queens Get the Money” and the bluesy “Y’all My Niggas” and “You Can’t Stop Us Now.” When he attempts bombast, he falters. Chris Brown’s cheesy R&B hollering and the Game’s synth backdrops almost swallow Nas whole on “We Make the World Go Round” and the rock guitars of “Sly Fox” are more Limp Bizkit than Rage Against the Machine. I want to believe this guy’s the only true rebel, I really do, but at the end of each listen to Untitled, I’m not sure I’ve heard anything all that new.