'Untitled': thoughtful, angry rap

CRITIC'S CORNER -- MUSIC

CD Review

July 15, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Nas Untitled Sun Grade: B-

Oops, he did it again. Nas managed to get pop and hip-hop circles buzzing over an album title before a beat or rhyme could be heard from it. The last time the New York rapper did this was in 2006, when he declared in the title of his eighth CD Hip Hop is Dead.

When Nas announced the original title for the follow-up (an all-too-familiar racial epithet of various usage), he fell under more scrutiny, as articles and urban music blogs tightly tracked the album's status. Again, more attention was paid to Nas' motives behind the title than to the music.

But when several retail outlets threatened to not carry the CD with the original title, Def Jam, Nas' label, caved and pushed the rapper to reconsider. Commerce ultimately trumped hot button-pushing artistic expression, so the new album, in stores today, is Untitled.

Unlike its gold-selling predecessor, the 15-track set is cohesive. The album's theme - more or less a brutal critique of mainstream America's distortion of black cultural and political contributions - is certainly more focused than the message behind Hip Hop is Dead, whose grouchy, meandering rhymes mostly centered on rap's diminishing power in a fragmented pop culture.

Beginning with the first track, the piano-led "Queens Get the Money," Untitled feels purposeful. It's apparent that Nas has put much thought into the often incendiary raps, which explore race relations, stereotypes, Fox News, the possibility of a black president and a slew of things cultural and political. Nas, 34, has long been a serious, often humorless presence in hip-hop. These days, he has become even more earnest. As mainstream rap slips further into minstrelsy, he apparently feels it's his duty as a 14-year rap veteran with a major-label contact to offer more food for the head, never mind flavor for the ear.

Although Nas' rhymes gleam with interesting wordplay and metaphors, most of the production on the new album is lifeless, which has long been an issue with several of his CDs. Still, he manages to sound vibrant in spite of the limp beats behind him. This verve is most noticeable on cuts where he's detailing his own suffering. On the first single, "Hero," one of the album's better tracks, he raps about the compromise on the album's original title: "Still in musical prison/In jail for the flow/Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel they can't sing what's in their soul/So Untitled it is, I never changed nothing."

He gets vicious on "Sly Fox," another standout, shooting flaming arrows at Rupert Murdoch's news empire. "Fried Chicken," a concept cut featuring Busta Rhymes, uses a double metaphor to parody and embrace dietary and sexual stereotypes. "Make the World Go Round," with the Game and Chris Brown, is the only relatively light moment on the CD, during which Nas seemingly contradicts himself and extols the flashy side of hip-hop he purportedly disdains. But a closer listen reveals the celebration of black artistry in today's pop.

Far beyond the original title, there's much to digest and debate on the new album. Nas' rhymes are often thoughtful and delivered with a welcome dose of energy. If only the music matched the feel and nuance of his rhymes, the album would penetrate even deeper.

Download these: "Hero" and "Sly Fox"

Also anticipated

John Mellencamp teams up with celebrated producer T-Bone Burnett on the politically charged Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Roots-rock band O.A.R returns with All Sides, its first album since 2005's Stories of a Stranger. And hit Mississippian David Banner releases Greatest Story Ever Told.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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