Sometimes it’s hard to separate artistry from publicity. I was recently involved in a healthy debate regarding whether Amy Winehouse’s success is due to her artistry or the fact that she’s a walking, talking trainwreck (I vote for the former). The fact of the matter, though, is that in an environment when record sales are falling and record companies are scrambling to make their bottom line and justify their extravagant expenditures, artists are relying more and more on publicity stunts to keep their names in the headlines, which ends up putting true music fans in a bind, unable to separate the artist and the artistry from the celebrity.

This is one of two reasons I was initially skeptical about the untitled (or self-titled, depending on how you look at it) ninth studio album by the rapper Nas (or NaS, as iTunes annoyingly lists his name). As anyone who has even a remote interest in popular music must know, a mild furor arose when Nas announced what he intended to originally call the album: “Nigger”. In a hyper-sensitive world where the media seems to pounce on every available opportunity to create division and drama, a simple word/album title turned into a political football (interesting that no one batted an eyelash when Ol’ Dirty Bastard titled an album “Nigga Please” less than a decade ago). Various stories began circulating around the press: was Nas going to get dropped from Def Jam, his label? Would certain stores not carry the album if released? Why was the album’s release date continually getting pushed back? Why did Nas rip off the whip-welt scarred back cover of dead prez’s “Let’s Get Free” for the front cover of his album? Ultimately, Nas chose (or was asked, depending on who you believe) to change the title of the album-well, actually the decision ended up being not to title the album at all. I’ve viewed this whole situation with a cocked eyebrow, amazed at the ability of the average rap fan to buy in to what was obviously (at least partially) a publicity stunt milked to raise maximum awareness of the album’s release (as it turns out, the gambit didn’t exactly work. While the album debuted at #1 on this week’s album charts, it did so with the lowest first-week sales of any Nas studio album since his debut).

Reason #2 I was skeptical about this album? To understate the point slightly, Nas’s discography is a bit…shall we say, inconsistent? In the nearly decade and a half since his classic debut, “Illmatic”, his albums have run the gamut from halfway decent (underrated third album “I Am”, post-Jay-Z battle releases “Stillmatic” and “God’s Son”) to mind-blowingly awful (the double-CD debacle “Street’s Disciple”). He appeared to have turned the corner with 2006’s “Hip-Hop is Dead”, a thoughtful, mature work (despite another publicity stunt of a title) that is probably the most consistently listenable album of his career. With that said, though, I knew anything new from Nas had as much potential to be complete garbage as it did to be a work of genius.

As it turns out, “Untitled” is neither fish nor fowl. From a technical standpoint, Nas remains a dazzling emcee. Actually, this is really the first album since “Illmatic” where I’ve found myself in awe of his rapping from a purely skill-related standpoint. In a genre that places “flow” very high on its’ list of attributes, Nas is unquestionably an MVP. In a lot of cases, it doesn’t matter what he’s saying because the way he says it is so pleasing to the ear. However, the album loses a couple of points when you actually focus in to what is being said-or more accurately, what is not being said.

“Untitled” is obviously meant to be a political album. Look at the titles: “Black President”, “Hero”, “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)”. That’s perfectly cool with me. I came up in an age of not just political hip-hop, but political music in general. Tracy Chapman, U2, Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M. and even Janet Jackson explored sociopolitics in their music, while hip-hoppers like Public Enemy and Ice Cube created explicitly political works. Hell, even the most lightweight of rappers ranging from MC Hammer to LL Cool J to Heavy D explored some sort of social conscience. So in an era that seems to value hedonism over responsibility, it’s nice to hear someone at least attempting to make their listeners think about things other than making love in the club or drinking Bacardi at the party.

With that said, it’s long been a contention of mine (and many others) that Nas’s political rhymes sound a bit more intellectual than they actually are. As former rival Jay-Z once said “Just because you understand him don’t mean that he nice/It just means that you don’t understand all of the bullshit he writes”. Several of the songs on “Untitled” start off with good intentions but end up not actually having a point. “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave & The Master)” jumps around thematically from verse to verse. Is he discussing conditions historically associated with the black ghetto as he does in the first verse, or is he discussing his own value to the people around him as he does in the song’s final verse? It all seems incongruous, and unlike people like Chuck D. and Ice Cube, who were capable of focusing their political aggression into songs that made specific points, Nas occasionally seems content to let the way he spins his words cover up the fact that he’s not really saying anything. There are also times when he falls into the same old lazy explanations rappers trot out for the violence, misogny and profanity in a lot of the genre’s music, asking why critics don’t cite “Grindhouse” and “Kill Bill” for exploring the same sentiments? If anyone needs me to explain the difference between violent/misogynist/profane movies that are marketed as fiction and violent/misogynist/profane music that is marketed as “keeping it real”, please shoot me an e-mail. I’ll be glad to break it down for you.

Nas also occasionally lets his ego overtake his better judgment, as on the song “Untitled” (can a song called “Untitled” be the title track for an album??). It’s hard to imagine the government targeting a mildly political rapper whose success and political influence is B-level at best. If Chuck D. was rhyming about being targeted by the government, I’d have an easier time falling for the okey-doke. The fact that a spoken line about Minister Farrakhan is blended into the mix repeatedly just blurs the motive (and blunts the impact) of the song. Is Nas talking about himself or is he talking about the Nation of Islam leader? How are we supposed to follow this guy if we can’t even be sure what he’s talking about?

That said, when Nas is focused, there are few rappers around who can rival him. “Sly Fox” is a scathing indictment of right-leaning Fox News and talking head Bill O’ Reilly, while “Black President” is an interesting hesitant endorsement of Barack Obama. It’s nice to hear someone actually put some thought into the discussion behind Obama’s nomination and probable election instead of the blind support we’ve already been accustomed to hearing. “Fried Chicken” highlights why Nas is one of the best conceptual emcees to ever touch the mic…that is, when he bothers to conceptualize to completion. Along with guest Busta Rhymes (who I can tolerate on a track for the first time in nearly a decade), Nas intriguingly jumbles themes so you can’t tell whether it’s a song about the health risks of fried food, a song comparing a woman (or women) to the finger-lickin’ good title subject, or both. Yes, I realize that I slammed Nas for doing the exact same thing in the last paragraph, but on this song at least the blurring of topics seems intentional (and points can be made for either interpretation), whereas on “Untitled”, the blurring of topics takes away from the listener’s understanding of what’s actually being said.

Many of the reviews I’ve read so far of “Untitled” attack the album’s production, which I actually see as a highlight here. Aside from the mentioned-too-many-times-already “Illmatic” and “Hip-Hop is Dead”, this is probably the easiest Nas album to listen to from a production standpoint. While the classic boom-bap associated with hip-hop isn’t really found here, Nas works well with various types of production, whether it be the big, synthesized sound that works with current pop radio (first single “Hero” and the Chris Brown-featured “Make the World Go Round” are two of the best overtly mainstream-aimed songs Nas has ever recorded), or raucous rock guitars (“Sly Fox”), or muted piano (album opener “Queens Get the Money”). You get the feeling that Nas was going for mood and feel as opposed to bangin’ beats for the sake of bangin’ beats on this album. The music, generally speaking, is consistent with the album’s predominantly serious tone.

While I certainly enjoy most of this album (actually, in what has been an absolutely atrocious year for hip-hop music, this might be the second best album I’ve heard from the genre in 2008, behind The Roots’ “Rising Down”), the same issues that turn me off of much of Nas’s work continue to pop up here, most notably the rapper’s continuing efforts to pass himself off as an intellectual leader when he doesn’t even make coherent points half the time. You can fool the little 20 year old blogging wiggers who think they know black culture because they listen to Lil’ Wayne’s mixtapes, but I’m a reasonably politically aware 32 year old black guy who comes from the same environment you did. I’m not buying the bullshit, bro. You can talk all day about injustice and reparations, but you’ve got to make points while doing so. The flow (lyrically and musically) of the album pushes it above average status, though, and when Nas is focused, there aren’t many rappers out there who can touch him. One day, that focus will manifest itself over the course of an entire album, and only then will Nas be the prophet he imagines himself to be.

…and he won’t need publicity stunts to get his point across, either.