Nas‘ potential is so immense that it puts him in the uncomfortable position of living up to a level of artistic greatness that presumably doesn’t exist. Case in point, Illmatic was an unintentional classic. It came at a time when Hip Hop wasn’t begging for a savior. Nas just became its leader. There was no pressing cultural issue that demanded an icon. Nas just rolled his young sleeves up and menaced the microphone. There wasn’t enough media attention surrounding Nas to question – or demand change to – a controversial line like “When I was twelve I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” off of his guest spot on “Live at the Bar-B-Que” as there is today. There was no pressure to make a classic. And that’s how classics are made.
Since that template has been set, everyone has expected Nasir Jones to eclipse that timeless piece of work. The fact of the matter is that it will be impossible to nail it like Illmatic did. It was equal parts timing and brilliance. But Nas has been trapped under that microscope of critics and fans alike and often succumbed a bit to the pressure. It’s not Nas‘ fault. It never appeared that he made Illmatic with the idea of making millions. It just happened that way.
Every piece of work since has been compared to his debut and it appeared that even Nas was uncomfortable with what he saw in the mirror. Realizing he has no peers in today’s generation of Hip Hop artists, Nas has stood alone in this industry. And it does indeed get lonely at the top. Because of that, he has created work that is more reflective of those who are artistically beneath him rather than put the blinders on and do what he does best. Each of his 7 works following Illmatic have embraced this to some capacity. Some have been critically acclaimed (Stillmatic) while others have been critically panned but commercially successful (Nastradamus). Regardless, it seemed that Nas was too conscious of what people thought rather than making what he thought was great.
Imagine if Prince made music featuring – or reflecting – Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z or Dr. Dre. While it may sound good in theory, the fact is that Prince has never needed these artists to define him and because of that he will always remain a musical genius. Nas needs no peer to define him. Simply put, it’s a race that Nas has already won but he just doesn’t know it yet. But with his 9th studio album it can be perceived that he may have finally figured out he has always been ahead of his class.
When Nas initially named his album “Nigger,” it was Nas not giving a fuck what anybody thought. Just like when he created Illmatic. It was all about him and what he wanted to do – whether we liked it or not. Although controversy and constant criticism from the album’s initial title may have placed doubts on how great of an album it can be, none of this has stopped Untitled from lyrically being his most consistent and daring project since Illmatic.
What Untitled does is bring Nas to the masses minus the big budget cameos, the glossy camera tricks and any other far reaching method to claim crossover success. Nas is beyond that for the most part. Untitled finds Nas doing Nas with absolutely no concerns about how the critics or fans will take to this project. It’s damn near Illmatic all over again – but this time with a message.
On this outing there are no beats by Kanye West, no features with Lil Wayne, no songs about mink coats and popping bottles and no lyrical gimmicks. It is just Nas and his mic – which is pretty much how it should be. Jay Electronica‘s naked piano loop on “Queens Get The Money” raises the proverbial curtain on this lyrical monologue and sets the tone early by clearly stating that Nas means business.
Although stripped of its original title, Untitled still utilizes a loosely knitted concept surrounding the controversial N-Word. Nas goes places where only the likes of Public Enemy, KRS-1 and dead prez have gone before him. But Nas‘ lyrical eloquence takes front and center stage to personify the ideology of using Hip Hop as the soundtrack to the revolution while creating thought provoking social commentary.
“N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave And The Master)” is Nas at his most powerful as he waxes poetic about the African American struggle in America. There’s a certain enriching manner that Nas addresses the N-Word that makes it look more like a study rather than the rampant usage of a word. This isn’t Nas celebrating the N-Word, but rather bringing forth the idea that – in one way or another – “Niggers” will always exist. This is best personified by the brilliant narrative “Project Roach” where The Last Poets scorn the supposed burial of a word in favor of uplifting those who the name has been bestowed upon before Nas spits from the perspective of a roach. The obvious comparison between the word and roaches is done as provocative as only Nas could do.
“Y’all My Niggas” breaks down the ideology behind the word and offers some lyrical insight (“Yo I was thinking a little bit/What would it take to authenticate my nigga-ness/ball ridiculous/26 inches when I call up the dealership/aw that’s some nigga shit”) while “Fried Chicken” finds Nas alongside Busta Rhymes and a funky Mark Ronson production as they affectionately play with stereotypes. If there’s any two artists that can illustrate their food fetish, it would be Nas and Busta.
Nas has always been criticized for his production. Since his flawless debut, there hasn’t been an album where the production fit the artist. Although the criticism can’t be completely be put to rest on Untitled, it certainly be silenced for the time being. The surprising appointment of dead prez‘ stic.man proves to be an excellent decision as stic‘s plush production rolls on “We’re Not Alone.” Elsewhere, DJ Toomp‘s “N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave And The Master)” thumps triumphantly while Green Lantern provides a marching aesthetic to “Black President.” What Nas has done is employ production that doesn’t overpower his lyricism and forces the listener to hear Nas.
Untitled is not a complete examination of the “N” Word. “Sly Fox” takes a hard look at the “fair and balanced” Fox network and the aforementioned “Black President” deals directly at the mere concept of having a black man running the White House.
There are a couple of songs that restrict it from becoming an instant classic. The glaze of commercial sheen that Polow Da Don and Keri Hilson spray on “Hero” turn Nas‘ brainstorm to a slight overcast. Although there are no complaints with rhyming alongside The Game on “Make The World Go Round,” Nas‘ appointing of Chris Brown makes the song the biggest commercial reach on the album. Although both songs “work” to some degree, it adds some turbulence to an otherwise smooth flight.
With Untitled it appears that Nas truly understands and embraces that you cannot please everyone. Because of that, he has rid himself of the handcuffs that fans and critics have bound him with and expresses true creative freedom. As long as he realizes that the people believe in him and will follow him just because he is Nas, he can continue to create ambitious projects such as this.