Controversy is clearly Nas’s best friend. The lively debate stirred up by 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead was trumped many times over by his year-long proclamation that his next offering would be named Nigger. Wal-Mart, unsurprisingly, didn’t love that idea. So what hits shelves this week is simply Untitled, and there isn’t a typical banger to be found anywhere: The delicate piano intro to “Queens Get the Money” sounds like straight-up Alicia Keys until Nas launches his signature poetry-as-rap flow, half-Queensbridge reminiscin’, half braggadocios, and only a sprinkling of politico.
It’s not until the next track, “You Can’t Stop Me Now,” that his agenda starts to take shape, giving us a brief history lesson on racism over bluesy guitar and a Shaft-deep voice that booms, “As James Baldwin says/You can only be destroyed by believing/That you really are what the white world considers/A nigger.” Heavy stuff. “Breathe” continues in that vein, with watered-down, ’90s-style synths providing the backdrop to both a call to action and a lament: “In America, you’ll never be free/Middle fingers up, fuck the police/Damn, can a nigga just breathe?” After a brief non-political detour (assisted by not-so-engaging Polow Da Don and Cool & Dre tracks), Nas picks up the heavy baton again in a string of tracks that tackle the right-wing media (“Sly Fox”), challenge the support of his suburban fans (the heartfelt “Testify”), and muddle the meaning of a polarizing word (“Ya’ll My Niggas”).
By this point, unfortunately, it’s clear that he’s merely airing his racial frustrations rather than offering any solutions. Which is more than most rappers are doing, but it’d all go over much better if the beats were of the hard-hitting “Made You Look” or “One Mic” caliber. They’re not. (One misstep, the UFO tale “We’re Not Alone,” is actually fueled by a rainstick.) But then again, it’s lyrics, not beats, that drive Nas, and he reminds us of that with the Mark Ronson–produced “Fried Chicken,” wherein he joins Busta Rhymes in setting up a sex-as-soul-food metaphor, waxing poetic on ‘hood nutrition: “Don’t know a part of you that I love best/Your legs or your breast/Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gon’ be a nigga death.” Equal praise goes to the creativity in “Project Roach” (rapped from the perspective of an insect) and arguably the strongest track, “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master),” which sums up the complexity of his subject over dramatic violins: “They say we N-I-double-G-E-Rs/We are much more/Still we choose to ignore/The obvious/We are the slave and the master/What you looking for?/You the question and the answer.”
From another perspective, though, the album boils down to a “Vote Obama” PSA; on “Black President,” Barack is mentioned for the second time and officially endorsed over marching-band drums and Tupac’s iconic lines: “And though it seems heaven-sent/We ain’t ready to see a black president.” Controversy aside, without any truly addictive tracks, you can’t consider Nas’s latest among his greatest. But it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.
Nas plays the Jones Beach Amphitheatre August 3.