Title: Untitled[1]
Artist: Nas
Label: Def Jam
Catalog No.: B0011505-02
Release date: July 15, 2008

What does it mean to be Black in America? This is a question that W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Pryor, Henry Louis Gates, CNN and more have attempted to answer over the years. Black Americans have come into even greater vogue with the recent nomination of African American Barak Obama for the presidency of the United States. Seeing the increased interest in African American life coupled with the ongoing issues that plague it, rapper Nas felt that it was his responsibility to offer commentary on the subject. With Untitled, the legendary MC paints his portrait of Black life in the United States. Originally called Ni**er, Nas stirred up controversy over his choice of album title and tentative content. Prior to its release, he claimed that Untitled, like 2006’s Hip Hop is Dead, would be a truly remarkable and thought-provoking album. While receiving positive reviews, however, Hip Hop is Dead failed to live up to the hype. With Untitled, Nas is putting his credibility as a rapper and as an intellectual on the line. Is he able to back up these claims?

Untitled’s opener, “Queens Get the Money,” finds Nas flexing his lyrical muscle over minimalistic Jay Electronica production. Salaam Remi offers a slightly under-produced beat that Nas absolutely shreds with his two knowledge-rich verses. The track also features appearances by the Last Poets and Eban Brown of the Stylistics, who add very little to the song. “Breathe” proves that Nas is at his best when painting vivid pictures of street life. “Make the World Go Round” is the album’s most commercial song. Featuring Chris Brown on the hook and a good verse from the Game, “Make the World Go Round” is solid, but far from special.

“Hero” is the album’s lead single and while a good song, its placement after “Make the World Go Round” makes it sound a bit redundant. In fact, these two tracks almost blend together into one long song. On “America,” Nas offers a detailed critique of his country and he throws a very creative jab at Fox News on “Sly Fox,” while also warning listeners to be more critical of all media. “Testify” is a poorly executed track which features Nas rambling about various issues over a smooth Mark Batson beat.

“N.I.*.*.E.R.” begins the heart of the album. Over an incredible hot Toomp beat, Nas offers a biting critique of Black life in America. While he blasts the country for its injustices, African Americans are also indicted. Both “slave and master,” Nas feels that the race has been victimized by both America and its own self. “Untitled” is an up-tempo dedication to Black revolutionaries, a group that Nas now feels he belongs to. “Fried Chicken” is a very entertaining song in which Nas and Busta Rhymes romanticize the African American culinary staple. In a similar vein, Black Americans are compared to roaches in terms of indestructibility on “Project Roach.”

On “Y’all My Ni**as,” Nas spits viciously over a pounding bass provided by J. Myers. “We’re Not Alone” is a brilliant track on which he speaks about everything from alien life to conspiracy theories to injustices to his own righteousness. It is a very well-written song that forces the listener to do some additional research in order for many of his intended messages to be fully illuminated. “Black President” is the perfect ending to the album, as Nas employs an up-tempo beat and a Tupac sample to sum up the album’s prevailing themes.

Lyrically, Untitled is Nas’ best album next to the heavenly Illmatic. It is evident that he paid careful attention to every word he spit, never falling off topic. Nas has picked up where Chuck D and KRS-ONE left off, bringing Edutainment to the masses. Unlike those two Golden era legends, however, Nas rarely comes off as preachy. With “Untitled,” he has given the hip hop communityno, the worlda manifesto on what it means to be Black in America. The beats are not amazing, but as a whole offer adequate accompaniment to his lyrical dissertation. We often ask our artists to use their gifts to help uplift the community, and Nas has given his full effort to this objective. In response to Nas’ previous album, hip hop is not dead. When he looks in the mirror, hopefully Nas sees that hip hop is very much alive.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

[1] This album is referred to as Nas by several music sites, including Amazon and All Music Guide. Def Jam Recordings and Nas’ site, however, list the title as Untitled.

Somebody Scream!

Title: Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power
Author: Marcus Reeves
Publisher: Faber & Faber, Inc.
ISBN: 0571211402
Date: 2008

While hip hop music is known for many things, some good and some bad, often overlooked is its politics. Like other forms of Black music, hip hop has always reflected socio-political issues and the ideas of Black Americans. In Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, Marcus Reeves explores hip hop’s political nature over the course of 300 pages.

A native of New Jersey, Reeves is a journalist who has followed hip hop since its early days and has professionally covered the music for over fifteen years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and Vibe, among others. He was also deputy music editor at The Source and a columnist for Russell Simmons’ One World magazine.

Reeves features a number of major hip hop artists in his effort to demonstrate how rap music was “a unifying expression for the post-Black Power generation and, eventually, the world” (xi). Artists such as Run-DMC, N.W.A., Tupac, and Eminem are the means by which Reeves discusses hip hop’s political nature. Particularly compelling is the chapter on Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row Records titled “Gangsta Chic.” In it, Reeves discusses how Death Row crafted the atmosphere and attitudes of the post-1992 L.A. Riots era into commercial music that revolutionized the hip hop market. Reeves does an excellent job of presenting how Death Row records was situated within the context of a volatile, urban Los Angeles.

While context is definitely one of the strong points of the book, it is also of the problems. In many of the chapters, Reeves provides unnecessary historical information regarding the artists he features. For example, the founding of N.W.A. has already been rehashed numerous times, so the inclusion of these details seems redundant and somewhat unimportant to the overall scope of the book. This is a minor distraction, however, and takes little away from the book. Reeves is very successful in presenting hip hop as an artistic manifestation of the political ideals of the post-Black Power generation.

Overall, Somebody Scream! is very informative and engaging, and provides a different lens through which one can view this often maligned and misunderstood culture. This book is recommended to both scholars and fans of hip hop music and culture.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins