Hip-hop godfather brings controversy, stumbles with mixed message
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.