Recently hip-hop fans (and writers) have become “classic album” sluts, willing to go home with any album that buys us a drink and says we have “pretty eyes.” Maybe our standards are slipping, maybe we’re so desperate to hear classic hip-hop we’ll take anything that comes close, but either way we’re still the musical equivalent of desperate women with low standards. At the same time, we have to be careful not to become so jaded, so haterish, that we deny “classic” status to the works of hip-hop magnificence that truly deserve it. With that in …
DJBooth Album Review
Ever since a 21-year-old Nas shook the world with his debut album Illmatic, he’s seemingly struggled to live up to the expectations generated by his initial classic album. Nasty Nas’ career is now more than a decade old, and while there’s been plenty of mistakes along the way (Oochie Wally comes to mind), he’s always set the standard for elite lyricism. So when Nas announced he would be naming his new album N*gger, the world didn’t know what to expect. Was the great Nastradamus about to produce an album worthy of its extraordinarily bold title, or was this just an attempt at generating controversy (like his stupidly titled last album Hip-Hop Is Dead). Changing the album title to Untitled at the last minute certainly dulled its impact immensely, but Untitled also finds Nas’ at his most consistently dope level in years. Still, one question gnaws at me: sure Untitled is good, but is it a classic?
Untitled certainly has classic moments, starting with the very first track Queens Get the Money - if I’m memorizing any flow on the album it’s this one. On Queens, producer Jay Electronica creates a soft piano melody distorted by electronic synths, like a symphony played by robots, while Nas lays down two straight minutes of incendiary lyrics: “pregnant teens give birth to intelligent gangsters, they daddies faceless, play this, by your stomach, let my words massage it and rub it.” Twenty years from now rappers will be quoting that line. That lyrical brilliance isn’t even done fading by the time the slowly rumbling chords of You Can’t Stop Us Now kick in, and while the core sample has been used repeatedly (most recently by RZA), Nas and producer Salaam Remi embed Can’t Stop Us with a sense of triumph missing in other versions. I was two tracks into Untitled and I was convinced it was a classic.
But then the doubts started to creep in. Actually, they started to creep in at exactly the moment We Make the World Go Round came on. Let me put it this way; what is Chris Brown, a great pop singer but a young man completely devoid of any hint of struggle or pain, doing on an album ostensibly titled N*gger? It feels like bad casting at worst and mainstream pandering at worst. Still, I don’t want to box Nas into the “black revolutionary” box, he’s certainly allowed to party, and he does so much better on Hero, a Polow Da Don produced joint that’s unusually bouncy for a Nas track. Despite Hero’s more polished feel, Nas lyrically comes as hard as ever, weaving an explanation for the album title switch into a flow that rides as smooth as a Rolls Royce. So this is my dilemma; if Hero becomes Untitled’s biggest single, and I’m betting it will, is that good enough for classic status? Let’s be real; it’s not nearly as good as Nas’ other hits: If I Ruled the World, Made You Look, Thief’s Theme. Should I go on?.
If I’m unduly hard on Untitled’s weak spots, it’s only because Nas was on the verge of making something truly extraordinary and frustratingly fell just inches short. I mean this is an album that has The Slave and Master, a track that should be the definition of real rap (“we trust no black leaders, use the stove to heat us”), and Black President, a cut that turns Tupac’s famous line into a theme (of sorts) for Obama, and I haven’t even gotten into the strangely brilliant Fried Chicken, but let’s honestly compare Untitled to other recent classics. Is Untitled as stunningly creative as Lupe’s The Cool? Is there legendary production to match a legendary rapper, like on American Gangster, or does it perfectly capture an entire region’s culture, like Underground Kingz? When I put it that way....no, no it doesn’t. All praise due, Nas, you’ve made an extraordinary album, I just can’t pull the “classic” trigger.
DJBooth Rating - 4.5 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 07/14/08
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