Controversy is clearly Nas' best friend. The lively debate stirred up by 2006's Hip Hop Is Dead was trumped many times over by his year-long proclamation that his next offering would be named Nigger. Walmart, unsurprisingly, didn't love that idea. So what hits shelves this week is simply Untitled, and there isn't a typical banger to be found anywhere: The delicate piano intro to "Queens Get the Money" sounds like straight-up Alicia Keys until Nas launches his signature poetry-as-rap flow, half-Queensbridge reminiscing, half braggadocios and only a sprinkling of politico.
It's not until the next track, "You Can't Stop Me Now," that his agenda starts to take shape, giving us a brief history lesson on racism over bluesy guitar and a Shaft-deep voice that booms, "As James Baldwin says/You can only be destroyed by believing/That you really are what the white world considers/A nigger." Heavy stuff. "Breathe" continues in that vein, with watered-down, '90s-style synths providing the backdrop to both a call to action and a lament: "In America, you'll never be free/Middle fingers up, fuck the police/Damn, can a nigga just breathe?" After a brief, non-political detour (assisted by not-so-engaging Polow Da Don and Cool & Dre tracks), Nas picks up the heavy baton again in a string of tracks that tackle the right-wing media ("Sly Fox"), challenge the support of his suburban fans (the heartfelt "Testify") and muddle the meaning of a polarizing word ("Y'all My Niggas").
By this point, unfortunately, it's clear that he's merely airing his racial frustrations rather than offering any solutions. Which is more than most rappers are doing, but it'd all go over much better if the beats were of the hard-hitting "Made You Look" or "One Mic" caliber. They're not.
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Controversy aside, without any truly addictive tracks, you can't consider Nas' latest among his greatest. But it's hard not to appreciate the effort for what it is.