After pronouncing an entire genre dead, the progenitor of New York hip-hop turned his eye to a broader horizon: race relations. To that end, Nas originally intended to name Untitled an unprintable epithet, and though the moniker has changed, the album it represents is still blazingly incendiary.
Untitled’s tracks brim with expert production (notably, Polow da Don, Jay Electronica and stic.man) and Nas’ poetic wizardry, a testament to the struggle of tackling an issue this complex. “Sly Fox” is Nas’ long-awaited riposte to Bill O’Reilly—a deft potshot at Fox News, which he blasts as “visual cancer.” It’s unquestionably Untitled’s capstone: heavy guitar riffs buoy Nas’ crushing flow as he delivers lyrical bullets to the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
Unfortunately, no amount of slick beats and swagger can camouflage Untitled’s defects. “Make the World Go Round” is an utterly forgettable club track, especially thanks to a phoned-in feature from the king of generic ballads, Chris Brown. “Hero” is the album’s other, much stronger, shot at the pop charts: a rollicking banger dense with rich synth harmonies and fiery verse. It’s unimpeachable as a single, but a Faustian bargain since Nas is employing the thundering percussion and computerized instrumentation of the “southern sound” that compelled him to declare hip-hop DOA.
This dichotomy ultimately gets exhausting. No matter how good the album sounds, it’s wedded to an all-too-ambiguous message. Nas self-aggrandizes as “the king of bling, jewels and Bentleys” in one line of “Farrakhan,” and then ponders his own mortality as a “revolutionary” in the next. Like Hip-Hop Is Dead, Untitled ruminates and points fingers without offering solutions.
Superlative prophet or aging grouch struggling for relevance, Nas splits the difference with a schizophrenic mélange of inspired lyricism and trite rap clichés. Hip-hop ain’t dead, but Nas can still kill it.
Listen to "Sly Fox" from Untitled