Having spent his entire career trying to live up to the promise of his brilliant debut “Illmatic” (1994), Nasir Jones needed to prove his ongoing relevance more than ever on his ninth studio album, especially after the commercial and artistic disappointment of his last effort, “Hip-Hop Is Dead” (2006). But Nas didn’t do himself any favors by engineering the genre’s biggest non-controversy since the feud between Kanye West and 50 Cent: Regardless of whether corporate politics, congressional threats or a Wal-Mart boycott was to blame in blocking the rapper from titling this disc the “N word” is irrelevant, because it was destined post-Imus to play as a cheap publicity stunt. As Chuck D. says, sometimes that’s the only word that fits, but if you use it, you can’t complain about the fallout.
“Write about what you know,” the age-old adage holds, and if the strength of Nas’ earliest work was his particular poetic take on the inner-city hell surrounding him, his recent attempts to pull back and look at the bigger picture have suffered from an increasing fuzzy-headedness, and he’s never tried to tell a bigger story than he does here, attempting nothing less than a sweeping socio-political analysis on the roots of American racism. But instead of a doctoral thesis, Nas delivers a high-school sophomore history paper that would be lucky to get a “C.”
“Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag,” Nas tells us in “You Can’t Stop Us Now.” “Bet she had a n----r with her to help her old a--.” Things get even more contradictory, simplistic and confused from there, with Nas undercutting his praise for Barack Obama (“Black President”) by defending dog abuser Michael Vick (“You Can’t Stop Us Now”), stating the beyond-obvious in “Sly Fox” (“Watch what you watchin’/Fox keeps feedin’ us toxins”) and somehow shifting from racial conspiracies to UFO cover-ups in “We’re Not Alone” (“Evidence remains in debate/Documents of our own Air Force base/Additional terrestrial information/Other planets with life population”).
Meanwhile, an all-star roster of big-name producers such as Polow da Don, Stargate, Cool & Dre, the Game and Mark Ronson craft the most lightweight ear-candy backing tracks of the artist’s career. At their best, they combine with Nas’ effortless flow to create jams appealing enough to score regardless of the lyrics (“Hero” or “Fried Chicken,” a light-hearted food-as-sex romp with Busta Rhymes). But nothing can save lyrically and musically weak tracks such as “Make the World Go Around,” “Queens Get the Money” and “Breathe,” and overall, “Untitled” is another half-baked offering from a talent who once seemed capable of much, much better.