Review Summary: Great rapping, awful beats.
Before we even get to discussing the music contained on Untitled
, let's have a pause to congratulate Nas. This is the man's ninth album, and he's been one of the most consistent, persistent topics of discussion in the music press for the past year, both for the Bill O'Rielly feud over the Virginia Tech concert and, of course, for the infamous decision to name this album Nigger
. Be cynical if you like - accuse him of seeking publicity and playing the media, by all means - but the fact remains that for a rapper to still be hot property on his ninth album is a staggering achievement, regardless of how it was achieved. And few deserve it more than Nas - his flow is one of the best in the business, he's only ever released one truly bad album, and he will undoubtedly be remembered as an all-time great. No matter what happens to Untitled
and its genesis - whether it is remembered as bravery or stupidity - we should at least put things in context.
Anybody who was expecting Nigger
to be a statement of intent - and I think that's most of us - was half-right. The thematic content of this album, and the inspiration Nas draws from it as a lyricist, certainly surpasses Hip-Hop is Dead
, a decent album that failed to explore its titular statement with any real aplomb. In fact, this is as inspired as Nas has sounded in many a year; if The Lost Tapes
were to be taken out of his discography proper, then it's quite possibly his best personal performance across an album since 1996's It Was Written
. It's a thoughtful, almost hopeful performance, too - where a lot of socio-political albums in recent years have taken a deeply angry tone, this is frequently more a meditation than a rant. It's a discussion on how we improve, what we can change and how, rather than simply a list of things that are wrong. Adding to that vibe are sampled voiceovers ("Louis Farrakhan"), and the appearance of The Last Poets on Project Roach. This album's most lasting strength resides on that vibe.
That's the positive. The negative is the performances of Jay Electronica, Mark Batson, Polow da Don, DJ Toomp, Eric Hudson, Stargate, Cool & Dre, The Game, J. Myers, Mark Ronson, and Dustin Moore. These are the people behind the majority of the beats here, and each and every one of them offers up a weak, diluted piece of music for Nas to spit fire over. The only three guys that get a pass on this are stic.man, Salaam Remi and, as much as I hate to admit it, DJ Green Lantern. For the latter, as much as he did to ruin The Nigger Tape
and Immortal Technique's The 3rd World
, his militant beat on "Black President" is a highlight here, sitting at just the right pace and intensity for Nas to shine at his best, and his use of 2Pac on the chorus is tasteful and smart. Salaam Remi wins out for his use of a hook lifted from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Renegades of Funk" on "You Can't Stop Us Now" - in contrast to the frantic original, this beat slows the line down to a smooth, fluid electric guitar line, with a gospel choir delivering the same line and providing the album's best chorus in the chorus. As for stic.man, he simply annihilates every other producer on show with the brilliant "Sly Fox". Nas kills it here too, and when the beat boils down for the third verse, you'd better believe Nas brings it.
They say I'm all about murder-murder and kill-kill
But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill?
What about Cheney and Halliburton?
The backdoor deals on oil fields
How's Nas the most violent person?
Ya'll don't know talent if it hit you
Bringin' up my criminal possession charges with a pistol
I use Viacom as my firearm
And let the lyrics split you
Who do you rely upon?
They shoot shells at Leviathan
I'm dealing with the higher form
Fuck if you care how I write a poem?
Only Fox that I love was the red one
Only black man that Fox loves is in jail or a dead one
Don't let the hype into your eyes and ear drum
Murdoch on Fox, not A-Team with Baracas
And he hate Barack cause he march with the marchers
It's a shame that the other beat that stic.man offers, "We're Not Alone", suffers from the same faults as the remainder of Untitled
- weak as hell R&B hooks, an ill-judged '80s bent, and soft drums. "Testify", "America", "Hero", "Make The World Go Round", "Project Roach", "Ya'll My Niggas" - each one of them is a victim of at least two of those flaws. When "Louis Farrakhan" and "Fried Chicken" look like highlights stacked against this wave of mediocrity, you know something is wrong. Neither of those songs are bad, by any means - in fact "Fried Chicken" is pretty enjoyable, its metaphor and concept bringing the best from Busta Rhymes on his guest spot - but they just simply shouldn't stand as the third and fourth best beats on an album with MCing this good.
In a lot of ways, this is the easiest review I've ever written. The flaws and strengths are so obvious, so glaring, that I can tell you outright in two sentences whether or not you will like this album. If you listen to rap for the lyrics, then go ahead and get this, because Nas sound great. If you listen to it for the beats, go spend your money and time on something else. Untitled
is far from terrible, but it's still a deflating, disappointing, infuriating listen. Somebody get the master tapes and give these raps the beats they deserve, stat.