2008 / Music

Review: Rapper Nas Challenges Political Consciousness On New Disc

Acclaimed Rhymer Delivers Ninth Album

If, as Mao Tse-tung once said, politics is war without bloodshed than Nas’ raps are a political science lecture without snoring.

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/Columbia Records/The Jones Experience

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/Columbia Records/The Jones Experience

Nas’ lyrical prowess and his nimble verbal skills make his rhythmic monologues far more dynamic than your average professor’s stuffy pontificating, but the Queens-bred hip-hop artist’s purposes are no less earnest nor thoroughly reasoned out.

“It’s some heavy concepts we got to explore,” Nas rhymes at one point.

On his new album, “Untitled,” the highly acclaimed rapper steps up his continuing, brainy assaults on the hip-hop public’s political as well as social and cultural consciousness while working in not-so-subtle endorsements of presidential contender Barack Obama.

The record makes explicit that Nas’ focus is increasingly shifting away from the lyrical street brawls with his bling-obsessed rivals to issues and concerns outside the ‘hood. His private beefs are now dwarfed by his railing against the greater evils that he sees, the true puppet masters pulling the strings. Now more than ever, Nas views his role as an artist not as a deliverer of personal statements, but to live up to the idea that rap is “the black CNN,” as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once proclaimed.

Perceptions that a rapper has “matured” usually coincides with a time that he or she obtains a Screen Actors Guild card. Hollywood, it seems, has become the 401K plan for too many legendary MCs who’ve given up the game. This stems from the fact that no hip-hop artists — unlike rock, jazz, blues or soul — has successfully transitioned from the fury of their youth to a respectable middle age.

Nas, however, seems ready to be a pioneer in this realm. He has always followed his own, often conflicted path and never shied away from provocative stances. He clashed with Jay-Z at the height of the latter’s fame before making friends and moving to his erstwhile label. He broadly declared that hip-hop was dead on his last disc to much grumbling. And how many of today’s rappers are confident in their cred to namedrop Warren Buffet in a verse?

“A new day is rising,” Nas says, in his anti-establishment speech that serves as a coda for the billowy, neo-soul vibe of “We’re Not Alone.” It’s a surprisingly direct statement against “elites” whose tone and style one could label as a class warfare ambush. “So I’m deadly now/Because of one reason/They’re listening,” he warns in the record’s title track. That day is one in which Nas strives not just to fill dance floors but voting booths.

Of course, Nas and his producers labor to pair his treatises with could-be club anthems, swinging for the fences each time. In contrast to many of Nas’ contemporaries, the production on “Untitled” is smooth and isn’t in the iconoclastic and garish model favored by many on hip-hop radio. He rhymes off tracks assembled by nearly a dozen producers, including notables like Mark Ronson, stic.man and DJ Green Lantern. They’ve formulated the jams as complete songs instead of a patchwork of hooks and licks sampled from others. Some are notably better than others.

“You Can’t Stop Us Now” is a hip panorama of black-music influences that melds together influences from bop-era Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Motown and Parliament-Funkadelic, but delivered al together with a downtown-cool attitude. A jazz guitar trails and then urges Nas on as he traces black history while chop sticks sound like they’re striking the snare drum and a palpitating bass booms so loud that it messes with the listener’s heartbeat. Understated horn blasts ease the too-cool groove into the chorus, which features “Superfly” falsetto vocals from Eban Thomas of the Stylistics. Nas’ rapping demonstrates defiance against past injustices, which matches his irreverence for genre boundaries.

“Make The World Go Round” has no such complicated conception. It’s a straightforward club jam that is little more than a brilliant hook repeated over and over. The track is drenched in “Purple Rain”-era keyboards and featuring vocal appearances from Chris Brown and the Game. The genesis of lusty love song “Fried Chicken” is also obvious enough. Produced by Ronson, its urban soul sound certainly harkens back to his work with tabloid star Amy Winehouse. Chirpy horn blasts, guitar trills and a James Jameson-inspired bass run give Nas a period piece to work off of, but one he’s more than capable of wrapping his voice into. Guest Busta Rhymes pops up and turns in one of his most laid-back performances, carefully taking over the song’s latter half.

Nas’ attention turns to bigger and arguably more profound targets as he treads closer into the political arena and weighs in on the on-going culture war. His labor of love is “N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and The Master),” which has a string sample that seems to quote from the operatic theme of “The Godfather,” and yearns to be anti-racist epic. On the mic, Nas is certainly intent on settling scores. He goes after all-comers — both perceived and real — dissing fair-weather fans, a still-racist society and the spy-happy Bush administration with the same red-hot indignation. Matched with his rage, Nas offers a repeated message to the black community to counteract these wrongs: self-empowerment.

On “Sly Fox,” his blunt attack on Fox News and the White House has no higher purpose beyond taking down his persecutors. Fox News targeted Nas last year about his album and a recent performance at Virginia Tech and now its payback time. The paranoid, dystopian tenor of his rapping, in which Nas denounces blowhard commentator Bill O’Reilly, is surprising in its candor. The numerous references to “The Matrix” as a metaphor and the ’80s hair-metal soundtrack aren’t, and they dull the pointedness of his attack. Any hipster would be more than a little embarrassed to play this song at a rally protesting the country’s right-wing institutions.

Whether the new songs are politically oriented or not, Nas’ approach on the mic takes the polar opposite strategy from that of the music on “Untitled.” Nas continues to specialize in verbal collages, cutting and pasting together a whirlwind of images drawn from history, philosophy, personal biography, music and movies. He’s didactic like Common or Mos Def or Talib Kweli, but his artistry buys him greater slack. The deeper meaning of his lyrical jabs comes out of his Dennis Miller-like jumble of references as well as his deft turns of phrase.

This strength is now an instrument for Obama supporters. The album’s final song is “Black President,” and has Nas and DJ Green Lantern resurrecting a sample from Tupac Shakur and reciting Obama’s campaign catch phrase to rally support for his presidential pick. The track drifts closer to stilted infomercial than inspirational rallying cry, but does demonstrate Nas’ depth of feeling for the presumptive Democratic nominee and how his poetic gifts can serve a non-personal purpose.

And although Obama will certainly benefit if Nas’ vocal endorsement marshals more hip-hop fans to vote in November, the rapper isn’t the kind of celeb who would seem a safe bet for the inaugural ball. Provocative and always a loose canon, Nas remains a grassroots activist at heart. While many politicos cluck about what Obama’s candidacy means and whether it signals American society’s transition to a “post-racial” paradigm, this is an idea that Nas would likely ardently oppose. He, like many of today’s rappers, are children of the Reagan era, and the scars of the past run deep. Although his lyrical pen is now more oriented toward the goal of electing a black man to the nation’s highest office, he would recoil from the concept that Obama’s election brings a conclusion to the fight against racism and injustice.

“Untitled” might best function as the Obama campaign’s bit of viral marketing to seduce the hip-hop crowd, but it does reaffirm Nas’ place as rap’s intellectual conscious. As before, he’s still using beats to woo listeners to his wisdom although even his opponents can respect his desire for a higher purpose in the seduction if not the message itself.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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