Pros: His most-consistent and best-produced album since Stillmatic.
Cons: Political talk occasionally veers into pseudo-intellectual and ill-informed ramblings.
Bottom Line: Album lives up to its controversial title.
NI**ER (Slave and the Master)
With “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas cynically used a controversial title to sell an inconsistent album. So when he named his new album the “N” word, many were skeptical. He was eventually forced to leave it untitled, but the challenge of living up to such a bold title clearly motivated Nas. “Untitled” is one of the best and most cohesive concept albums in years.
A meditation on his life as a successful black man in 21rst century America, it traces the history of racism to the psychic burdens of today’s ghettos. It’s better than the sum of its parts - almost every song pushes the album forward, musically and lyrically.
As much poet as musician, Nas never lets the beats overshadow his lyrics. But since mainstream rap is made primarily for cars and clubs, he has often struggled to find producers who can make brilliant and understated beats.
His debut Illmatic managed this balancing act perfectly; it’s arguably the greatest rap album of all-time. While nothing could live up to that standard, “Untitled” is his best work since Stillmatic. It’s no coincidence the album’s best moments feature two of rap’s best up-and-coming producers - Polow da Don ("Hero") and DJ Toomp ("Slave and the Master").
In the cutthroat and fickle world of rap, where careers age in dog years, Nas’ 14-year and nine-album career is astonishing. In that time, he has simultaneously become a legendary figure while also squandering much of the goodwill he generated with Illmatic.
And after a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments and setbacks, Untitled has a valedictory feeling: “Nas the only true rebel since the beginning / 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!”
It’s a tribute to the album that these comparisons don’t seem too ridiculous.