(Def Jam; 2008)
By Chet Betz | 29 July 2008
Nas is like…whatever. Do you know how frustrating it is to say most of what you wanted to say about an artist’s current floundering (which I did for better or worse with my review of Hip Hop is Dead ) and then have said artist drop an album that’s just an aggravation of the same frustrations? “Aggravation” might be too strong a word, let’s go with “continuation.” This review wrote itself back then; now this review will have to eat itself out of starved boredom.
I thought about turning to CMG’s special brand of wankery, maybe rewriting a passage from the Bible—say, the Sermon on the Mount—with Nas in the place of Jesus and a crowd of black Americans searching for answers while Nas runs his rhetoric in unconvincing circles. Thought about it but then decided that this untitled dearth of art, Nasir’s new non-poetry, doesn’t deserve things like conceptual grandiosity or, like, effort. Fronting sacrifice, our self-proclaimed rap savior sure didn’t give any. This dumb record is dumb in the physical sense of the word, its title the silent stammer after the speaker makes a glib statement with questionable shock value (like, say, “hip hop is dead”) and then everyone stares, waiting for the follow-up. Reacting to that droll gaze, Nas wished to capitalize and italicize the same owned slur he litters all over his work, lashing out at a nation of indifference. Foiled there, he reverts to his old tricks, the album cover a cheesy double entendre of slave and Christ imagery. The provocation’s all surface tension; take a dive and you’ve practically hit bottom before even entering the water.
Of course the beats suck. Of course they do. Nas isn’t making music any more, so why would he care about even trying to get good beats? (Though he only lucked out on them in the first place, and by “first place” I mean Illmatic .) His cadence may still rap but his talk is all talk. There’s not even a dialogue of ideas here or a smidge of insight. Cling to the auspicious opener with Jay Electronica working magic out of a freakin’ I Am Sam sample and Nas waxing a rhyme barrage to a surreal shine because then “You Can’t Stop Us Now” is about how “you” (white people, generally) can’t stop “us” (black people, generally) now. Nas revels in a history of stereotypes on his first verse and then basically regurgitates a Dateline piece for the second; I care about what Nas is saying but he gives me no reason to engage with how he’s saying it, his lyrical paradigm as thin as the paper he writes on, storytelling and imagery subjugated to big statement hooks that say big nothings. This continues throughout the album. “Breathe” is about fuck the police and smoking marijuana. “Make the World Go Round” is about how Nas, the Game, Chris Brown, and other assorted hustlers make the world go round. We’re knee-high in hypocrisy at this point, which means that running into the otherwise effective “Hero” just stubs our toes.
From there the record spirals out of control, but I mean “spirals out of control” in the dullest way possible. Like a professor spewing a semi-clever lecture on civil rights and contemporary left politics where he’s pretty good at rhyming his facts but acts like rhyming is all the sinew that his presentation needs to connect the bones of his argument. Well, rhyming and Busta Rhymes. So there’s “America” about America, the only inspired thing about it being Stargate ripping off Ennio Morricone’s theme for Once Upon a Time in America. So there’s a track called “Louis Farrakhan” that says Louis Farrakhan is really great and so is Nas. So “Sly Fox” talks about how shady Fox media is. So Black America is systematically held down by “Fried Chicken” (but what’s fucked is that I think that—with his sexual metaphor and his Busta Rhymes—Nas ends up equating certain cooking habits with black women and both as habitual oppression of the black man, like fried chicken and its makers are the new/old coke conspiracy, all smoothly soundtracked in yummy Mark Ronson fat) and “Project Roach.” Guess the latter’s theme: yup, the projects suck and have roaches and “niggas are like roaches”! So the N-bomb might not be the album’s name but at least Nas gets to turn it into a track title acronym. So how is that an acronym, exactly? So “Y’all My Niggas” let’s niggas know that, hey, niggas, Nas is here for you. So “We’re Not Alone” is about how we all should “harmonize” because Nas saw aliens back in ’99. So Obama has Tupac’s vote. So there’s a track called “Testify,” of course. So, wait, whoa, Nas doesn’t already have a track called “Testify”?
So, so, so…so what, Nas? I wish I could say I’m being reductive of Nas’ work on this untitled disc of him talking about shit but, thing is, I’m not. Like, I’m leaving almost nothing out. There isn’t really anything to leave out. This is the shortest, bluntest verse in the long rap that is Nasir’s gospel about himself and how he envisions the world. This is “And Nas wept.” But it’s that verse repeated ad nauseam. He’s not even crying any more, he’s just saying that he is and that we should be crying, too. Well, I’m not provoked and I’m not crying, Nas. Now, in the context of your own making, you have sort of succeeded at sucking the venom out of the N-bomb. I couldn’t even avoid using it in this review. With this understanding that we have, Nas, you’ve rendered the word impotent. Good job! But what to do with all the malaise you’ve left behind? No, I’m not crying. I’m trying not to yawn.