Nas [Untitled]

[Def Jam; 2008]

Styles: commodified art for market’s sake
Others: Katy Perry, FOX News, {The Matrix}

Ever since the Western world’s market transformed from a feudal (producer/government-controlled) system to a market/capitalist (consumer-controlled) system, one question has remained ubiquitous in the art world: is it possible for an artist to create art for art’s sake anymore? That is, can art be made without the audience in mind and have intrinsic value? Or, is it now inextricable as a commodity to be bought and sold, with a value dictated by the ebbing-and-flowing market? The past hundred-plus years seem to indicate that the former is true: movie producers utilize test screenings and record labels manufacture lead singles, so the audience’s reactions can be accurately gauged and the work altered accordingly. The artist’s idiosyncratic vision has seemingly been effaced by the capitalistic bottom line. Such is the case with the contrived, desultory, and ultimately hollow untitled album by Nas.

One tried and true formula often employed by artists to sell their music to consumers has been to shock them. From sex (Elvis’ scandalous elastic hips and Katy Perry’s salacious #1-hit single, “I Kissed A Girl”) to violence (Ozzy Osborne and that unfortunate dove, rap sheets longer than most setlists), controversy has continually proven to be the most effective form of publicity for a musician. Of course, race as publicity generator is not to be forgotten. And Nas certainly has not. Along the lines of Body Count’s “Cop Killer” and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” Nas originally named his latest album Nigger. However, more so than those aforementioned tracks, his racial politicking came across as visibly contrived and as an attempt simply to generate pre-release buzz rather than to stimulate important, intellectual race-related dialogue.

Firstly, once the necessary national hype had been generated and various prominent voices, such as the NAACP, began to vociferously attack him, there was his too nonchalant and seemingly uncomplicated decision to change the album’s title. Then, there were the strange rationalizations of his decision. Notably, on “Hero” Nas raps, “This universal apartheid/ Blocking y’all from going to stores and buying it/ My lawyers only see the Billboard charts as winning/ Forgetting, Nas the only one true rebel since the beginning.” This verse is Nas’ supposedly angry response to his record label’s (Def Jam) concerns over the decision of major retail chains, such as Wal Mart, not to carry his album under its original moniker. But doesn’t Nas’ decision to comply with Def Jam’s demands make him utterly complicit in their apparently opposed decision-making? Isn’t he clearly subjugating his voice and artistic vision in favor of capitalism? Especially in a day and age (the Web 2.0 epoch) when artists have other less monopolized and bureaucratized means to distribute music, is this really the definition of a rebel? Or, a hero?

For an album with race politicking as its major theme, the rest of the tracks deal no better with this important but admittedly problematic subject matter. “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)” could have been one of the most interesting tracks on the album, as it most clearly evokes the album’s “real” title. In a typically hip-hop, non-Hegelian sense of the phrase, Nas raps on the chorus: “We are the slave and the master.” That is, African Americans were freed only to enslave themselves again by flossin’, among other things. However, his concepts contradict one another with every rhyme and lyrical twist. At times, Nas rationalizes his own gaudiness (“It’s necessary I bling/ Puts rims on everything/ Wear Timbs on every scene”), only to then inconsistently condemn material possessions (“Yep! I’d give this cash up/ This paper don't matter”). He gets even more desultory and confusing on “Sly Fox.” On this track, his targets are too obvious (FOX News, Halliburton, the FCC), references too tired: (“The Matrix doctrine”), lyrics too baffling (“The Fox has a Bushy tail/ And Bush tells lies and Fox trots/ so I don't know what’s real”), and topics too varied for any subversive ideas or exciting discourse to emerge.

The aesthetics on the untitled album prove no more successful. On “Hero,” in-vogue producer Polow da Don bombards the listener with tinny rising and descending pianos, pounding drums, an unnecessary R&B-er (Keri Hilson) on the chorus, and doses of heavy reverb. Such a cacophonous template would be fine for a club-banger, but on a track where Nas’ lyrics are supposed to be the most important aspect, it muddles his message. On the craven, inappropriate “Make the World Go Round,” Nas employs every currently popular trend in pop music to create one of the most explicit crossover attempts of his career, as he toasts every clichéd figure in hip-hop -- ballers, gangstas, hustlas -- and name-drops Fendi and Porsche over a generic Cool & Dre beat, while Chris Brown adds nothing but marketability.

Ultimately, Nas’ decision to sacrifice lyrical and aesthetic sensibility for controversy, hype, and pop-appeal exposes the commodification and hollowness of his artistic voice and vision. There’s nothing wrong with an artist wanting to eat, but to conceal obvious commodity under a guise of meaningful art is misleading, hurtful, and above all inappropriate. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be a rebel and give in so easily to industry pressure. You cannot be a hero and spew contradictory, desultory poetry. You cannot talk meaningfully about race and become a black-faced minstrel performer by mimicking every hip-hop stereotype. Playwright Oscar Wilde once said, “The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art.” With his untitled album, it seems clear Nas ate his art only to be dominated by the gazing, domineering spectator.

Most Read