Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nas: Most Frustrating Rapper Alive

To the people who think Lil Wayne, now officially the biggest superstar in hip hop, is the anti-lyrical devil incarnate, Nas's Untitled is one of the only pure hip-hop albums with the potential to "save" the genre this year outside of The Roots's already released and extremely underwhelming Rising Down. There's been so much talk about the "controversy" (hate the overuse of that word, news always uses it to equivocate) surrounding the album's original title Nigger that it's put added pressure on Nas to deliver, and obviously since he made such a big deal about naming his album it'd just make any half-assed effort look even worse.

So Al Sharpton got mad (shocker I know,) at least one politician threatened to push to divest state money from Universal Music Group, and Nas has gone on record as saying that him, David Banner and Young Jeezy among other rappers are the new voice of urban black youth and it's time for Jesse Jackson to shut the hell up. Really Nas, Jeezy? I mean I get how he could think he talks about the "struggle" but still. It's also kinda interesting after their whole spat in 2006 over the hip hop is dead thing and Nas dissing "hustler not a rapper"s on more than one occasion, but anyway. Nas's possible delusions of grandeur aside, Untitled actually does deliver in that Nas has a clear, smart and to-the-point message here. Namely that there's still all sorts of problems the black community's dealing with, both from their own current vices and the legacy of racism in the past. While there's not institutionalized racism now like there was back before Lyndon Johnson, only clueless Republicans (particularly of the Bush variety) would take the easy way out and say that everything's peachy and we all have equal opportunity nowadays. And I'm a registered Republican, so this isn't any crazed left-wing deal. It's just that racial differences right now manifest themselves in the continuing socioeconomic divide between whites and blacks/Latinos, and the cultural differences that've prevented us from seeing eye to eye on a bunch of issues.

For me, as someone who thinks a lot of Nas's political "statements" in the past have been misguided, not as smart as he thinks bullshit (namely his low-point with Street's Disciple's "American Way" and "These Are Our Heroes," the latter in particular with its bass-ackwards fake black/real black logic,) this is all a good thing. This album proves that when he wants to be, Nas really is one of the smartest, sharpest dudes in the genre, and I found myself hard-pressed to disagree with the various points he brings up here. Well OK, so I can't say I'm a fan of Louis Farrakhan from what I know about the guy, but Nas's rapping on the song he's mentioned on is more about revolutionary ideas in general, not explicit glorification. Farrakhan's name only actually comes up in the looped sampled recording that snakes in and out of the track.

However, given that this is Nas's big statement album, naturally certain issues he talks about are gonna be more interesting than others, especially when he still seems to have no ear for good beats. "America" and "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)" are two of the most poignant songs Nas has done in recent memory both because they contain some of Nas's most potent commentary in a while (the former erases the piece of shit known as "My Country" from my memory with a real interesting, nuanced examination of black American history and contemporary problems, and the latter is a great look at both white perception of blacks and black self-doubt) and two of the best beats on the album. "Fried Chicken," meanwhile, proves that Nas needs to lighten up and make weird concept songs like this more often, much like "Dr. Knockboot" (yes I'm serious) and "Who Killed It?" have shown in the past. While the bad habit analogy between the black stereotype of loving fried chicken and an obsession with loose, my bad I mean sexually liberated women may seem "what the fuck?" on paper, Nas and Busta Rhymes really make it into a song that's both entertaining and smart.

But the sleep-inducing or just wack beats that plague the rest of the album (Nas is on Def Jam, I know he may not get the biggest budget in the world but you'd think he'd be savvy enough to get better producers) essentially make Untitled like a political speech you really agree with: sure the person who gave it made a lot of good points, but that doesn't mean you're gonna YouTube it a million times. And while I know Nastans like to blame Nas's album's failings entirely on his beats as if the guy's some infallible saint not responsible for his albums sucking, that's not the only problem here, as his flow is still a little too straightforward and not flexible enough for my liking. He's got some compelling passion in his delivery here, but his flow just can't carry songs that don't have interesting enough beats, especially when like I said the topics he takes on other than the three songs I mentioned just aren't as hard-hitting. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Nas to get his Lil Wayne on and stylistically experiment all over the place, especially on an album like this where it could take away from his message. But there's something to be said for switching up your flow and cadence for emphasis and effect. The only time Nas really steps outside the box here stylistically is when he rocks an intentionally lazy, slow flow on "Testify," where it's kinda amusing to hear him diss his casual suburban fans using a goofy vocal inflection but that's about it. And the NyQuil beat from Dr. Dre piano man Mark Batson doesn't help. Told ya in my last post they weren't as good without him...well actually come to think of it, some of Dre and Batson's beats together have kinda sucked too.

It's not like I wanted Nas to fail here. If I was some deranged hater I'd call his commentary here convoluted and stupid when it isn't at all, and him releasing a good or great album would really help when you consider that the title of his last album has been progressively proven more and more true. I mean shit, Lil Wayne and Kanye West are just about the only viable and truly talented rap stars left. However, as much I agree with Nas here (although, can I just say that he completely ignored a lot of legit points he could've ripped into FOX News for on "Sly Fox." A lot. And c'mon man did he really have to rehash the tired-ass "don't focus on me, focus on violent movies!" argument instead of defending his music against douchebag supreme O'Reilly?,) I can't help but think this would work better as some kind of keynote speech rather than an album. Someone take creative control over Nas's beats next time around, seriously.

Oh, and can I just say that the love for Polow da Don needs to stop, "Hero's" not that good people. Ciara's Sexiest Robo-R&B Song Ever "Promise" and his two beats on's album (don't laugh) = still his only truly great songs. Yet more proof of my groundbreaking thesis that hip-hop heads have bad taste in which guys are the "good" pop producers, listen to more Timbaland and Danjahandz and get back to me. I know Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Madonna are icky, but you'll get over it promise. Oh, and pick up N.E.R.D.'s Seeing Sounds while you're at it, I know Pharrell's been tricking everyone with all the shitty beats he's given Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Twista and Common in the last two years or so, but he can still slaughter your favorite producer when he feels like it.

Speaking of which: Kanye West, N.E.R.D. and Wyclef Jean all performing at the Democratic National Convention? Fuck it I'm switching parties, not like I'm a Bush Republican anyway. But then the question is how I'd get in even after that...but don't worry, I'll make sure to become a very important political figure in the next week and a half.


Joey said...

I am posting a review tomorrow. In short, I very much enjoy Nas's rapping on this record--the flow, the cadences, the assonance--but the notion that it's a landmark political record doesn't do it for me.

Berto said...

I really appreciate the distinction you made regarding "Louis Farrakhan." Nas isn't trying to be anti-semitic here. I do agree that "America" and "N.I.G.G.E.R (The Slave and The Master)" are two of the best on the album, but do you really think tracks like "You Can't Stop Us Now," "Queens Get The Money," and "Ya'll My Niggas" aren't just as interesting for their flow/wordplay/content (all three combined?)? This is going to be a bit of a shameless plug here, but I talk a bit about the sub-narrative of Nas' leaving the ghetto and becoming enlightened in my review, and I'd love to know your thoughts.

tray said...

I think Throw Some D's was a great song. That's three great beats for Polow. I also might add Love In This Club and Gotta Dollar. As for Nas, I think you're being way too kind to him, and would actually recommend Pitchfork's spot-on-for-once review. They sum it up here: "On Untitled you get to decide whether you prefer Nas thoroughly exploring half-assed concepts or half-assedly exploring thorough concepts. Note the distinction: Either he's missing obvious targets or hitting ones not worth aiming at." As for Louis Farrakhan, that song sums up the whole album. Pick a slightly controversial title, then say nothing controversial whatsoever, in fact, nothing at all about Farrakhan - in fact, don't say anything at all besides this tired "Nas is a rebel to America" bullshit. It's hard to tell whether this is all a cynical marketing ploy, or whether he's really just this dumb, but it doesn't matter much.

Trey Stone said...

berto -- i think "Y'all My Niggas" has an interesting concept and i agree with Nas that you can't just get rid of the word at this point, but again, curse of the wack beats. the keyboards on that sound real cheap. i mentioned this elsewhere but i think the guy should release on acapella version of this album so people can do remixes Black Album-style.

i have some stuff to take care of in a bit, but i'll check your review when i get back.

tray -- think some dude named Butta produced "Throw Some D's" and Polow co-produced (the added synths?) and i don't think lyrically this is half-assed at all. i think the people who do just fundamentally disagree with where he's coming from here. personally i think the guy's bringing up a lot of relevant issues, especially given this election year. i appreciate it because other rappers might've take an easy "the hood's fucked up, white people don't care" approach, but Nas covers a bunch of different issues in a pretty reasonable way, both regarding white racism and the problems within the black community itself.

tray said...

But where is he coming from? What is he saying? This is what I hear - he doesn't like Fox, is worried about global warming, believes in UFO's, and just recently started to feel like there was a mysterious elite group that runs everything, making all ethnicities, colors, and creeds niggers. It's like reading one of Prodigy's crazy blog posts. Except, Prodigy's funny.

TableOfElements said...

"Let's Get This Paper" is -ESSENTIAL- Polow. So ridiculous.

Trey Stone said...

tray -- i'm not gonna argue this because other than "Sly Fox" (i don't like FOX News either, O'Reilly especially, but that's his most generic/weakest argument on the album save the bit about News Corp./New York Post) you're completely caricaturing his argument by cherry-picking. and Prodigy's posts are retarded, and not really in a funny way.

table -- this isn't a stan thing promise, but i just get a streamlined, second-rate Timbaland feel from that song. all the synth and choral effects might be cooler if Polow's drums were better