So hip-hop isn’t dead after all, though you might not know it listening to Nas’s first album since he rang the culture’s death knell two years ago. After headline-grabbing hype sparked by Untitled’s original title — the retailer-rejected Nigger — the final product is disappointing (Unfulfilled Promises might have been a better backup name). Untitled comes off like its shortest track — ‘Project Roach’, a horrendously muddled pest-project dweller analogy — a good idea poorly executed. Nearly half the 15-song album investigates the contemporary semantics of “nigger”, but only a couple of those tracks prove genuinely insightful (none approaches the intelligence of Wale’s ‘The Kramer’ from his free Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing). On ‘N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and The Master)’, Nas simplistically conflates cultural heritage and his predilection for conspicuous consumption: “descendant of kings/it’s necessary I bling/put rims on everything”. Then on the brilliant, breathy title track, Nas expands the term to all oppressed classes: “No matter what color you are, everybody niggas/you can stand by and watch or you can march on with us.” Meanwhile, the album-closing Obama endorsement ‘Black President’ comes dangerously close to reducing partisan politics to racial dualism.
With its bloated politics, the good non-”nigger”-themed tracks on Untitled are welcome relief (the bad ones frustrating Nastradamus-era throwaways). The electric guitar-fueled ‘Sly Fox’ (produced by Dead Prez’s stic.man) is an awesome mainstream media attack, and the Busta Rhymes-assisted, Mark Ronson-produced woman-as-food jazz romp ‘Fried Chicken’ provides some welcome humor amidst the self-seriousness. On the opposite end, laughable entries like the Cool & Dre-produced ‘Make The World Go Round’ and the UFO-themed ‘We’re Not Alone’ (what the fuck, Nas!?) should have been excised. Embarrassingly, the best track on Untitled is the lead single, the engrossing sci-fi epic ‘Hero’. Not since Salaam Remi’s ‘Made You Look’ has an adventurous beat choice pushed Nas’s flow to new heights like this booming, trippy, synth-speckled anthem from Polow da Don. Generally though, poor beat selection (as per usual with Nas albums) and careless lyrics makes for a mediocre record whose numerous low points cancel out its few, soaring heights.