Friday, lunchtime. I am listening to the latest Nas LP on my music player for the 29th time. Walking to the local sandwich deli, I plan to pass a bus stop on my right, and cross the road. There are a couple of people at the bus stop – a young man, and an older woman. As I approach, the woman begins to scream racist expletives in my face. “Why don’t you fuck off home, you stupid Paki? God damn terrorists everywhere, fuck off back to the desert, you sand nigger. I hate the bloody lot of you, bloody immigrants…” A million and one different thoughts race through my mind, all converging on the most important of all: what should my reaction be to this?
Friday, morning. I wake up, press play, and the new Nas album, “Untitled,” springs to life for the 28th time. The haunting â€œI Am Samâ€ piano keys of “Queens Get The Money” provide the perfect opening to the album – even if, as an introduction, it bears little relevance to the concept, when Nas drops lines like “I’m over their heads, like a bulimic on a see-saw,” it is worth listening to (and check out the cleverly constructed Rakim-esque diss of 50 Cent). Salaam Remi provides the smoky bass and blaxploitation horns on the understated “Can’t Stop Us Now,” and the mid-90’s R&B of “Breathe” may initially seem a touch too inoffensive, but provides a decent platform for Jones to kick some impressive flows: “I’m fresh out of city housing, ain’t have too many options/Pennies on a pension or penitentiary-boundedâ€¦â€ It also forms a smooth build up to the LP’s two commercially tilted singles. “Make the World Go Round” features inappropriate usage of Chris Brown, whilst The Game does his usual mockingbird mimicking of Nas over the blandest beat Cool & Dre have dropped in a while. “Hero” is a fine and immediately glistening lead single, complete with pounding bass and raindrop synths – but soon fades into no more than a strong album track (this won’t get played in a couple of years). By the time “America” arrives, Nas is hitting his stride lyrically – yet, for some reason Stargate seem intent on recreating the Karate Kid trilogy in audio form. Needless to say, it takes a long time to grow (I’ll let you know when).
Nas is an expert in questioning beliefs and the powers that be, and does so over the next few songs. First up, the whole Fox network gets Ether-ed on “Sly Fox” – stic.man’s guitars could have been more pronounced, but it doesn’t detract from a song that becomes even more genial when viewed in conjunction with the cutting video. QB’s finest then gets drunk/high and rambles over the lush ivory tinkling of “Testify” – questioning whether those suburbanites that buy his shit would “ride” with him. He then states on the DJ Toomp-produced “N.I.G.G.E.R.” that “We are the slave and the master/What you looking for? You’re the question and the answer.” Musically, this passage becomes mournful, somber even – yet lyrically, it takes time to appreciate just how powerful his words are. After the give or take Farrakhan track comes one of the absolute highlights of “Untitled” – the perfect-in-every-way “Fried Chicken,” laced by Mark Ronson. Concept? Check. Lyrics? Check. Music? Oh yes. Peep this:
“Mmm, Fried chicken, fly vixen
Give me heart disease but need you in my kitchen
You a bird, but you ain’t a ki
Got wings but you can’t fly away from me, driving in your
+Bucket+ seats all the way from +Kentucky+ to fuck with me
Look what you’ve done to me? Was number one to me!
After you shower, you and your gold medal flour
Then you rub on with hot oil for half an hour
You in your hot tub, I’m looking at you salivating
Dry you off, I got your paper towel waiting
Lay you down cause you’re red hot
Louisiana style you make my head rot
Then I flock to the bed then, “Plop”
When we done, I need rest
Don’t know a part of you that I love best
Your legs or your breast…
Missus Fried Chicken, you gon’ be a nigga’s death!”
“Project Roach” is a short and clever skit, hitting the nail on the head in a creative way – perhaps not in the mesmerizing way of “I Gave You Power,” but it is diverting enough. “Ya’ll My Niggas” is a grower, demonstrating how “nigger” has morphed from the negative into a badge of camaraderie, into the form of “nigga” (notice the title of this particular song, and the placement in the sequence of the LP). The final track before the wonderful (and fairly balanced) album closer “Black President” is the musically weak “We’re Not Alone” – and by now, you may have noticed the familiar Achilles Heel that has undermined virtually every Nas effort since time immemorial: the quality level of beats. Nas has held up his end of the bargain, with an unforgettable performance of verve and virtuosity than can easily be compared with ANY of his best work (yes, “Illmatic” included). But it isn’t quite as simple as that.
I can’t help but feel that “Untitled” would have worked better as a short and intense 11-track essay of the subject, or a lengthier 18-song dissertation. They also should have pulled a Winehouse and let the in-form duo of Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi produce 80% of the album, not just a song each. Yet, somehow, a complex and effective mood is created, which is rarely stepped out of – and although it is slightly subdued and reflective (with his temper remaining relatively restrained), “Untitled” is very well put-together. He seems to have traded in the rollercoaster ride of knowing that a Nas album provides a few 5’s and a few 10’s – here, pretty much everything hovers around a 7, an 8 or a 9, thus making it pretty much his most coherent LP. And I don’t like it as much. It feels like swapping a Lamborghini (flawed but breathtaking) for a BMW (wonderfully engineered, more sensible – but just NOT an exhilarating Lambo). The Nas moments we remember are when he drives flat out at 180mph (“If I Ruled the World” and “Made You Look”) or takes a hairpin bend at 60mph with perfect control (“World Is Yours” or “One Mic”). There are glimpses of that here but very few songs that will genuinely take your breath away. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view – but my suspicion is that many Nas fans previously desperate for a solid album are starting to realise that you should be careful what you wish for. Nas is an artist that trades on highs, thus riding out the low points – how many songs on here could challenge your pre-existing Top 10 favourite Nas tunes? But then I went for lunchâ€¦
Friday, lunchtime. Someone is screaming racist abuse at me by a bus stop in broad daylight, and I have a decision to make: how should I react? Should I seek help or get militant? Abuse her straight back or run for cover? My natural instinct takes over, as my entire body remembers that I am a descendent of Gandhi, and that none of these reactions would have met his approval. So I smile at her, walk off and carry on with my day â€“ she was left dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to do. Case closed. If this had been racism of the glass-ceiling variety, I would’ve taken action – but this was indiscriminate hatred from someone down on her luck. She saw a younger, better-looking and more successful non-white version of herself. She probably felt over-whelmed by the intense level of immigration in that area over the last couple of years, and couldn’t find an appropriate outlet for her frustration. She wasn’t to know that I was born less than 2 miles away from that bus stop. Only if we attempt to understand one another can the world progress, if we can forgive and move on to a brighter future. Needless to say, at the start of my 30th listen to the new Nas album, the CONTEXT had changed – and nitpicks about the music simply didn’t matter now. His words were all dominant, and it took that woman at the bus stop to jolt me out of my slumber, my cocoon. Nowadays we are taught that music trumps lyrics â€“ melody is king. But this time it could not be further from the truth. Once you really focus on the words, you’ll realise that this hip hop legend single-handedly drags the album over the finishing line into classic territory – sure, in SPITE of the production, but who cares when no MC has ever come close to such a balanced exploration of truly volcanic subject matter? He doesn’t preach or bleat on about â€œreverse racismâ€ â€“ he fairly assesses (without pretention) so many areas, shedding light on even more themes with unique expertise. Do the math and you’ll figure out the score I’m unable to officially give the MC for the Lyrics. Even if the music isn’t extraordinary, Nas himself is legendary on “Untitled” – and as long as racism is relevant, so is this album.