Album Review: "Untitled" in Stores July 15, 2008.
Nasir Jones has acknowledged his album's leak, possibly implying he himself was the culprit.
"You know we get leaked, you know I've been getting leaks forever. And it's so f----n exciting."
~Nas ( )
So, with this leak, the hip hop community can finally grade Mr. Jones' attempt to evoke a thoughtful, intelligent discussion regarding racial stereotypes and their societal impact.
Did he do it? Did he achieve more than a controversy? Did Nas come out with material that critically examines institutionalized racial profiling, or did Nas simply create a body of semi-conscious, creative wordplay that leaves the listener with some decent rhymes, cool beats but disappointing delivery?
Well, as I listen to the album titled "Untitled" but more recognizably called "N***er," I am impressed. I do feel the album is a mixture of many sounds, with a strong theme present almost completely throughout. As a production-enthusiast myself, I was quite amazed Nas would choose very unconventional instrumentals for two of his songs and a strong guitar for another pair. His love for the R&B, Blues, and Jazz genres is glaringly, yet unoffensively obvious throughout the majority of cuts. And he has some oddities that fall neither here nor there, yet are quite enjoyable.
So, track by track, where does that leave us?
1. Queens Get the Money produced by Jay Electronica:
The most unconventional instrumental Nas has ever used. Enjoyable, clear, concise melody. The surprise: With every rewind of the track, I wonder what these last lines mean: "And you ain't as hot as I is, all these false prophets, not messiahs...I'm the shaky hand that touched George Foreman, the same man who punched down devils who brought down the towers."
2. Can't Stop Us Now featuring Eban Thomas of The Stylistics & The Last Poets produced by Salaam Remi:
With smooth individual string strokes, Nas describes the irony of murders in inner-cities receiving less media than "domestic animal abuses." He references Chinese working conditions in his connection between the remnants of America's slave history and today's poverty-stricken citizens.
3. Breathe produced by J. Myers and Dustin Moore:
Strong Jazz/Soul basis for production, content seems to focus on pain, stress, frustration associated with disenchanted Americans. He settles on a relaxation, a break from worries of the economy, pensions, etc.
4. Make the World Go Round featuring Chris Brown and The Game produced by Cool & Dre and The Game:
Snapping, base, and keyboard keep a high pace as Chris Brown makes his signature R&B presence felt. This song departs from the album's theme completely. It's a rich man's opportunity to ride high. Just as "Hustlers" departed from the "Hip Hop is Dead" theme, so too does "Make the World Go Round." That doesn't mean this is a poor song, by any means. It does disappoint though, interjecting in what had been a near perfect fluidity of theme, style, and rhyme complexity. The Game comes in with strong lyrics, again referencing celebrity after celebrity as per his trademark.
5. Hero featuring Keri Hilson produced by Polow Da Don:
To bring the album around back on course, this song lightly returns to a semi-familiar theme. The previous track and this song stick out from the list as off-course, radio-friendly tracks. It is catchy, hip, and as some have alluded to, very "Stronger"-esque in its delivery.
6. America produced by Stargate:
In channeling his younger two selfs, that of "Street's Disciple" and "Hip Hop is Dead" Nas provides a creative rhyme scheme addressing his ill-impression of the United States government and economy. He does it with an intelligent cynicism unequaled in the music profession. His discussion topics include the misogny present in government and women raped left without options. He talks of a "killed people" who founded a nation, and a wish to destroy "the covenant" the early American founders created. Nas dives into the reality our nation was economically founded and secured through free labor, or slavery. Nas furthers the conversation by expressing his frustration that a woman can be convinced she is why "sin is here" by reading the Bible (Eve taking the forbidden fruit). He accuses men of having "played her, with an apron, 'like bring me my dinner dear. She the n----r here. Ain't we in the free world?" Then, stating the "death penalty in Texas killed young boys and girls...BARBARITY" Nas affirms his outrage of the use of the death penalty. He continues his anger at the allowance of the death penalty in a first world country: "How I made out of the hood dazzled me. How far are we really from third world savagry. When the empire fall, imagine how crazy that'll be." The hook is "America, It's not what you think it is." Instrumentals rely heavily on a limited Native American-sound. Wind instruments lace the words Nas speaks, subtly expressing the oppression the first settlers wielded on the Natives of this land.
7. Sly Fox produced by stic.man of dead prez:
Mr. Jones uses the metaphor of a sly fox to depict the 33rd wealthiest American. Yes, it is a direct indictment of Rupert Murdoch, majority shareholder of News Corp and a media mogul. Nas here deciphers through the corporate level of Fox Broadcasting, News Corp, and its subsidiares. The word flow is filled with alliteration, multiple rhyme schemes, and woven diction to create a very clear image. Myspace, Fox News, and the many levels of our economy are directly run or influenced by this single man, who has a very conservative outlook on the world. I am overly impressed by Nas' attack on the corporate machine that has lead to "over-stimulation" as Nas says, through Fox News' over the top graphics. He furthers his attack by accusing the corporation of "propaganda, visual cancer...[a] secret agenda, [being] Doctor Mindbender, and misinformation." In his flow, Nas recites "the fox has a bushy tale/tail, and Bush tells lies, Foxtrots, so I don't know what's real." He supplements this metaphor with others, of the Matrix, and thinking within the box, as he sees a manipulation of viewers. Then Nas continues his very personal attack on Murdoch by accusing the chairman of exploiting rap culture, and then denouncing the very genre in separate mediums (a direct explanation of the Myspace promotion of modern music, and the condemnation of modern music forms by Fox News anchors). Nas relates his own problems of titling the album with pressures placed on Universal, all that had lobbyist ties to News Corp. Stic man provides a gritty guitar rip with light snare and an overall drum set that only emphasizes the journey Nas takes through the deception prevalent within the media giant. Nas continues, and really emphatically, in a direct assault of every attempt Fox News has made to smear his character in front of its viewers. Nas rhymes "They say I'm all about murder, murder and kill, kill, but what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill," alluding to the fact Murdoch's own investments funded and promoted such films! I could continue, as you can tell I am enjoying greatly the full blown rebuttal to Fox's smear campaign of Nas when he was to perform at Virginia Tech. Just listen to the last "discussion" he adds to the end of the song, "So, Mr. Jones, I understand you've been experiencing some frustration. My guess? It may be post-traumatic stress, even post-traumatic slave syndrome. Why don't we begin this session by, letting you talk it out. Just talk."
8. Testify produced by Mark Batson:
A calming, piano-bound instrumental provides a cooldown for the listener, while Nas shifts his commentary onto "hicks" and the southern right wing of America. He throws his condemnation of the Confederate flag into plain sight. Nas makes mention that white suburban America attempts to understand his struggles, but cannot. Then Jones goes at the "pop" fans, expressing his wish to rather "go gold with it" then attract their interest.
9. N.I.G.G.E.R produced by DJ Toomp:
An underlying base accentuates the original instrumental. Nas refined the song's production from the single and video that was released. Regarding content, Nas shows an affront towards those within the urban communities who express complacency with the "status" given them by society.
10. Untitled (Louis Farrakhan) produced by ?:
As in the intro track, this is a very unconventional instrument using a harmonica and light synthesizers. Nas does not neccessarily talk directly about Farrakhan. Instead, he uses himself as almost parallel in discussing his desire to impact society as the controversial minister has. Nas indirectly shows a support for Farrakhan, stressing that the minister's work is something that "they" could not stop.
11. Fried Chicken featuring Busta Rhymes produced by Mark Ronson:
The two hip hop artists talk of metaphor upon metaphor. In some places, it is a description of their lust for women. In others, it is the direct love of the glamour of their lifestyles. And, on a quite deep note, there is an expression of sincere confusion, as to whether embrace things that do not define, but certainly are used to stereotype black culture. Does someone enjoy something branded to him in a condescending way? If a certain race is paired with certain things, such as certain foods, is it the abduction of a person's right to live without undue scorn and malice? It takes a little to get over the use of "fried chicken" as a phrase, but the clarity of the frustration expressed highlights a reality that stereotypes are alive and unfortunately, quite strong. The production includes sparse keys, a condensed drum rhythm, and a saxophone. Simple, yet effective.
12. Project Roach featuring Last of the Poets produced by Eric Hudson:
Nas is in love with metaphors on this album. It really is a return to his "I gave you power" days. Nas plays the role of the word "n----r" and explains it will never go away by some kind of symbolic "burial." Instead, Nas believes it has to be a rejection that comes as society grows and matures. The music is very hotel elevator/ classy champagne room style.
13. Y'all My N----s produced by J. Meyers:
In many ways, this is a conclusion-type track, one where Nas revisits, and admits the wordplay was quite deep and in need of unravelling. He rhymes in a very conversational way, unlike his usual rolling, absurdly filled style. He talks more of a positive idea that people can advance, that his words will resonate. Nas embraces the scrutiny of his character, his actions. He rhymes over a bouncing electric guitar. A bit of West coast end-sound is combined with a light rock influence to supplement the almost 70's backbone sound. Nas contends that one must understand what words mean, before one can act as if he truly grasps its impact. In many ways, this song contends that he has fulfilled bringing a meaningful discussion to his album, not just a controversial one.
14. We're Not Alone featuring Mykel produced by stic.man of dead prez:
The drum sequence is reminiscent of "Let There Be Light" off of "Hip Hop is Dead." The piano provides a melody and Mykel immediately depicts a light at the end of the tunnel. Nas jumps right back into deep thought, talking about God or Evolution, Confuscius philosophy, and what science brings to our understanding of society. Nas questions whether searching for the truth creates a greater threat. He then brings the discussion to whether we are alone in the universe. It could be seen as quite a tacky thought, but Mr. Jones talks quite seriously about his thoughts on life on earth and elsewhere. At this point, Nas brings conspiracy theories some light, but then shows a respect for facts and treads between 'questioning the norm' and 'going over the top.' He stays on point, thankfully. This is truly the ending with which Nas was going to leave the album, until his addition of "Black President." The statement made at the end is truly insightful, and works perfectly into the final track of the album....
15. Black President featuring Johny Polygon produced by DJ Green Lantern:
With the notable replacement of Obama's "Change the World!" exclamation with an identical statement by a different person, I believe Nas made a smart move to not allow the right wing pundits to tie directly Obama's voice into a song by Nas. The original song leaked had Obama's voice and a speech by Obama to introduce the song. I just wonder to whom that other voice belongs, as it is quite familiar. In any case, Nas talks of his support of Obama, although he asks if Obama "will still care" once he's elected. Nas again shows his cynicism, but in this case with an admitted degree of hope.
And there you have it, a song by song breakdown of the album's official tracklisting. There are two bonus tracks I have not heard yet, "Like Me" and "Proclamation." There was also "Esco Let's Go" that was dropped from the album. I guess Nas decided to give it as a treat to his fans on the mixtape. I was quite partial to the instrumental, but examining the song now, it does not really fit within the album, and the first set of verses had been leaked as early as Fall of 2007, so the material may have been seen as 'lost.' Also, the song, with an eight minute video "Be A N****r Too" was dropped from the album, which is a debatable move, but one that ultimately calms some nerves of those, like myself, who were overwhelmed by its chorus.
In summary, I see this album besting any other commercial album so far this year in quality. There does not seem to be anything on the horizon either that would contend with the content of this album. Except for "Hero" and "Make the World Go Round" this album was extremely well-knit, something rare in Hip Hop. Aside from those two tracks, the whole album presented relevant discussion on politically/socially charged issues. If Nas purposely leaked the album, as I think he did, it was too provide this album to the critics, like a movie screening, so it can be analyzed and responded to before its release. After reviewing the album completely, I believe Nas wishes as many people will hear his material, with less concern for sales.
So did the album live up to the hype? Yes. Was it a perfect 5/5? No. It was close. Extremely close. While "Hero" is fun and maybe the best he's done for the radio, it doesn't fit with the deep material expressed. This is an album that, in a perfect world, would have neither "Hero" nor "Make the World Go Round" to truly be a complete work of societal criticism. The reality is, Nas took on a near impossible act within the mainstream music industry: to provide social commentary on one of the most uncomfortable issues in society. And he delivered.