It has been nearly 15 years since Nas redefined socially conscious rap with his classic debut LP, entitled “Illmatic.” With a poetic flow, the album proved to be just the breath of fresh air hip-hop needed. Though his follow-up efforts have been solid, they have never quite lived up to the bar “Illmatic” set. Nas’ latest attempt, “Untitled,” goes even farther in the other direction, quite unfortunately, as an overly sardonic lyrics and weak production values ultimately make for a very unsettling album.
Originally titled “N*****,” but changed a few weeks before its release, the album centers around American society’s reluctance to progress in terms of social injustices such as poverty and racism. Thematically, most of the songs here deal with the struggle of the black man over the course of the last two centuries, revisiting low points in black history like slavery and lynchings.
The album begins as Nas proclaims his return to rap with “Queens Get the Money,” overzealous claims and all. Brooding over a gloomy instrumental, he explains, “Hip hop was aborted, so Nas breathes life back into the embryo.”
In the past, one of my biggest criticisms of Nas has been his often-hypocritical lyrics. He doesn’t disappoint here. In “Hero,” he’s hip-hop’s self-righteous savior: “They’re lookin for a hero/ I guess that makes me a hero,” the chorus insists. But in a heartbeat, Nas switches things up. He’s no longer the positive, anti-drug role model for urban youth he proclaimed to be only a few years ago in the anthemic “I Know I Can.” Instead, he pompously flaunts expensive jewels and luxury vehicles while he “rolls trees,” as he so eloquently puts it. “Breathe” shows us a lazy, uninspired Nas, who raps, “Braveheart, still QB’s finest/ Enough diamonds to change the climate/ Not only do you see a n**** shining, you can see a n**** breathe.” You can do better, Nas.
“America” is one of the only good tracks on the album. Here, a heartfelt Nas speaks on his youth and transition into adulthood over a contemplative beat. Once again, he’s still talking about our nation’s racial inequities and corrupt political system, but at least it’s done well. A little consistency would be nice.
“You Can’t Stop Us Now” taunts mainstream American society. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop us now,” the chorus repeats. But Nas never quite explains the root of his resent towards his country, or why he is bringing up Willie Lynch nearly centuries after the fact. “The Slave and the Master” suffers a similar fate. Nas opens a whole can of worms by starting the song off with an audio clip from Alex Haley’s “Roots,” but doesn’t feel the need to explain why. Such a provocative topic for a song deserves at the very least an explanation, but Nas’ his often-cryptic song lyrics don’t cut the mustard.
It’s not quite clear what contemporary relevance Nas sees in alluding to such events. As a pioneer of social consciousness in rap, he should be using his lyrics to uplift and motivate, instead of complaining and dwelling on history’s mistakes.
Nas has always been somewhat angry, but with “Untitled,” he’s become downright bitter, (and for reasons that I’m not quite sure he himself can articulate). If he insists on beating a dead horse, he should at the very least explain his reasoning for doing so. And if the lyrical content does indeed have any deeper meaning, I assure you: it will be lost on most fans, who will be content to chant Nas’ choruses about gleaming chains they will never own and Maybachs that they will never drive.
-Robert Burns, II
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