Nas doesn’t use Auto-Tune to sing like a drunken robot on Untitled, his ninth album. Nor has he spawned a YouTube dance craze. There are no glitzy Kanye West beats, and unlike West, nowhere does Nas refer to critics as ”squid brains.” Indeed, connecting with the mainstream has been a bugaboo for the Queens native, burdened as he’s been with the hopes of rap purists ever since his transcendent 1994 debut, Illmatic. He’s subsequently embraced his promise (2002’s deeply personal God’s Son) and cynically run from it (2001’s trashy ”Oochie Wally”). On 2006’s ornery Hip Hop Is Dead, the MC sounded exhausted, spitting the equivalent of ”get off my lawn!” over canned will.i.am beats.
What a difference a media frenzy makes. In 2007, Nas was pilloried by Bill O’Reilly, who took umbrage at the rapper performing a free concert for victims of the Virginia Tech shootings, then by black leaders for announcing the title of this album as N—–. That word may be gone from the cover, but its controversial presence is felt throughout the CD.
Over a spare, haunted-house piano loop provided by New Orleans newcomer Jay Electronica, Nas opens with clever schoolyard boasting (”I’m over their heads like a bulimic on a see-saw”). But he quickly gets down to business, tackling hot-button issues with the visceral imagery and clinical professionalism of a master documentarian, from racial hypocrisy (”America”) and the environment (”We’re Not Alone”) to old man O’Reilly himself (the fiercely biting ”Sly Fox”).
Neither preachy nor overly polemical, Nas uses his lyrical gifts to keep us guessing: One moment he’s addressing rap fans who ”live way out in safe suburbia,” the next he and guest Busta Rhymes gleefully play with stereotypes on the funky ”Fried Chicken.” Over a soul sample, ”Testify” starts, ”I just burned my American flag” — yet before the Obama-sampling ”Black President,” Nas declares, ”I love America.” In a summer of ”Lollipop,” it’s refreshing to hear a complicated record that doesn’t shy from grown-up ambition. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: See the video for ”Sly Fox” at Pitchfork