'Untitled' (Def Jam)
WHEN Nas dropped "Illmatic" in 1994, the 20-year-old seemed preternaturally wise, an old soul sketching the crack- and gun-infested inferno raging outside his project walls. Fourteen years later that precocity has morphed into something else entirely, with the Queensbridge-bred rapper turning his last two albums into publicity-grabbing polemics inveighing against the status quo.
Although 2006's “Hip Hop Is Dead” was built upon the partially plausible premise that the genre had become stale and inauthentic -- with rappers turned big-money shills and fans eschewing sample-based New York City street rap for synth-heavy Southern club bangers -- Nas' solution was equally inane: a half-baked record with great moments but no progressive ideas.
Now the 34-year-old rapper has turned his gaze toward the problematic American relationship with race. Originally dubbed an unprintable epithet for African Americans, "Untitled," due out Tuesday, is Nas' blatant attempt to lob a Molotov cocktail at both the chattering classes and the streets in an attempt to simultaneously reclaim his spot as one of rap's finest and shift a million units.
Instead, the nearly hour-long "Untitled" jumps from rote gangsterisms to transparent bids for commercial success and a litany of racial transgressions.
"Untitled" is littered with flaccid attempts at pop crossover, with "Hero" and "We Make the World Go Round" two egregious examples. Not only do the plays for radio riches feel forced, they make Nas' Neiman Marxist radicalism seem glaringly hypocritical, even by rap standards.
As for the album's muddled political core, it's best exemplified on "Farrakhan," where in one breath Nas claims that he's a "revolutionary" while in the next he claims he's the "king of bling, jewels and Bentleys." On "Testify," Nas stridently chides "little suburban white kids" for listening to his music and not being "willing to ride with him in the revolution." It's the sort of outmoded '60s hangover politics that Barack Obama was supposed to have made obsolete, an irony apparently lost on Nas, who dedicates the track "Black President" to the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Nas' beat selection doesn't help matters either, with producers du jour Polow Da Don and Cool and Dre showing up but ostensibly offering Nas the scraps that Rick Ross refused.
Of course, Nas is too talented to come up entirely empty. Jay Electronica's plaintive piano on "Queens Get the Money" meshes perfectly with Nas' imagistic stanzas, while "Fried Chicken" finds Busta Rhymes and Nas wreaking havoc over a throwback '94 NYC track tailor-made for the duo.
More often than not, though, Nas offers windy whines instead of innovative ideas. Sadly, the onetime kid out of Queensbridge has become a cantankerous crank.