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Nas, the N-word, and the Changing Face of Hip-Hop


Expectations have run high for Nas’ new album Untitled. It seems impossible to read a review of it without references to his previous album Hip-Hop is Dead. Ultimately, the question on people’s minds seems to be "If hip-hop is dead, why is Nas still beating the corpse?"
 
After all, that album made quite a bold assertion. It targeted the hip-hop industry’s consolidation into fewer hands, protesting the way it had been marketed to death, its soul sucked out and replaced with overblown bravado and bling. Nas himself spoke on what he thought the problem was prior to that album’s release: "Hip-hop is dead because we artists no longer have the power… Could you imagine what 50 Cent could be doing, Nas, Jay[-Z], Eminem, if we were the [Interscope Records Chairman] Jimmy Iovines? Could you imagine the power we’d have?"
 
Nas wasn’t the first to raise such criticisms, and for anyone paying attention it was hard to say he didn’t have a point. The album, and it’s lead single, provoked a lot of controversy. After all, this was one of the biggest rappers in the world declaring his own genre dead!
 
A lot has happened since Hip-Hop‘s release, though. Jena, Sean Bell, the Imus debacle, and other high-profile incidents have further exposed the disgusting racism that continues to abound in America. At the same time, the Obama campaign has raised the possibility of electing the first African-American president, and with it a whole host of hopes and expectations.
 
All of this has greatly affected the trajectory of hip-hop. "Conscious" artists have been gaining more exposure. "Mainstream," seemingly apolitical artists have, sometimes surprisingly, spoken out on a range of issues.
 
Nas had no intention of keeping his mouth shut either. That was made clear last October when he announced that his next album would be called "Nigger." Less than six months after the Imus fallout, this was a big middle finger to the pundits who insisted that rappers were more bigoted than a shock-jock with a long history of racism.
 
Nas incurred the wrath of everyone from Wal-Mart to state assemblymen for that decision. Radio stations warned him the album wouldn’t be played on air. All the while, his label, Def Jam, refused to come to his defense. In May, he finally relented and announced that his new release would be called Untitled.
 
Never one to hold back his opinion, Nas lets loose against this underhanded–and racist–form of censorship on the album’s lead single, "Hero":
 
"Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joel
They can’t sing what’s in their soul
So ‘Untitled’ it is
I never change nothin’
But people remember this
If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids
With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit."

 
This is only the tip of the iceberg on a relentlessly defiant and often radical piece of work. It is clear that Nas has been moved by the shifting winds in both hip-hop and American society in general. Like many other hip-hop artists this year, he has released an album that is described as his "most political yet."
 
Untitled continues his penchant for working with some of the best producers in the business–from DJ Green Lantern to dead prez’s stic.man. Taken in their entirety, the beats on Untitled sound like a smouldering flame that sometimes verges on the brink of full-fledged wildfire, while never taking away from the MC’s well-known and vast ability with vivid imagery and spot-on flow.
 
Good thing too, because Untitled skillfully takes on everything from police brutality to the prison system, the PATRIOT Act and war, poverty in the projects and American sexism. Like other acts, Nas isn’t only outraged, he’s grappling with possible solutions here.
 
In fact, there is a big side of this album that consciously reaches back to the height of the Black Power movement. The uncompromising track "Testify" is dedicated to George and Jonathan Jackson. The Last Poets, one of the original Black Pride sould collectives, feature prominently on two tracks–"Project Roach" and "You Can’t Stop Us Now"–bringing a delicious element of right-on, old-school funk into the mix.
 
And yet it is clear that Nas isn’t wallowing in nostalgia. The vitriol he spits against the Fox Network on the aptly named "Sly Fox" is guaranteed to be shared by anyone sick of Bill O’Reilly’s spew.  Not coincidentally, Nas and O’Reilly have an ongoing feud that reached a high point last week when he delivered a 600,000 signature petition demanding the anchor apologize for the notorious "terrorist fist-jab" comment. 
 
The album’s high-point, though, is the quasi-confessional "America." Nas paints a picture of his own journey from the inner-cities to the Big Time, while struggling with the fact that others like him weren’t so lucky. It’s a journey that, in the third verse, ends with him recognizing that things need to fundamentally change on so many levels–economically, politically, in terms of racial and sexual relations:
 
"If I could travel to the 1700s
I’d push a wheelbarrow full of a dynamite through your covenant
Let her sit on the Senate and tell the whole government
Y’all don’t treat women fair
She read about herself in the Bible believin’ she the reason sin is here
You played her with an apron like ‘bring me my dinner dear’
She the nigga here, ain’t we in the free world?"

 
With all of this in mind, these themes of racial justice, revolution and equality, Nas sends us off with his tribute to Barack Obama: "Black President." He is, of course, not the only rapper who has been inspired by the Obama phenomenon (just check out the Russell Simmons/DJ Green Lantern produced "Obama Mixtape" for proof of that).
 
Indeed, the magnitude of this step forward is highlighted by a sample of Tupac Shakur declaring "we ain’t ready to have a Black president." Yet Nas takes time in the track to wonder if electing Obama in itself will be enough: "I’m thinkin’ I can trust this brother / But will he keep it way real? / Every innocent nigga in jail gets out on appeal? / When he wins will he really care still?"
 
In that one line, Nas is articulating that contradiction that so many taken with Obama are now wrestling with; that struggle between hope that we don’t have Bush’s third term in front of us, yet deep concern that it may end up being business as usual, and the feeling that it may take more than a different face in the White House to gain real change.
 
There’s something bigger at play on this album, though. Nas, like most of the people in this country, is beyond fed up with the way things are going. When one of the most popular rappers in the business can’t help but release such an unabashedly outspoken album, it’s a sign that things are indeed shifting. It’s also a sign that hip-hop, far from being dead, is finding the strength to shake off its own shackles.
 
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and socialist living in Washington, DC.  He is a regular contributor to Znet, Dissident Voice and SleptOn.com.  His article on censorship in hip-hop appears in the recently published "At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored for Violence and Exploitation?" from Greenhaven Press.
 
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com.  To subscribe to his column or get in touch, email him at [email protected].

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