Hear ye, hear ye: Let it be known that I am a big Nas fan-have always been, and will always be. Sure, he had his contrived Mafioso “Nas Escobar” stage, but I’m still a big Nas fan. Sure, he made a weed plate of an album I did not quite consider possible from such a superior lyricist (read: 1999’s Nastradamus), but I’m still a big Nas fan. Sure, I have never understood how he can swing so easily and obliviously from one extreme to another-from a seemingly learned fellow to an incoherent buffoon. But guess what, I’m still a big Nas fan! It is no different from the way I view other rapping greats like Jay-Z, 2Pac, or KRS-One. Nas’ missteps and foibles, just like that of these aforementioned MCs, should never warrant anyone from forsaking the holistic view of a man that truly deserves to be hailed as one of hip-hop’s finest.
But out of the bizarre incidences that have made Nas one of the genre’s most enigmatic stars, this “Nigger” album-naming episode surpasses them all.
And the recently released video for the lead-off single, “Be a Nigger Too”-yeah, I can’t believe it, either-only exacerbates matters.
I have no idea when exactly Nas and Rik Cordero (the video director) did the video, but perhaps the statement Nas made three weeks ago makes the intent of Nas’ upcoming album to cover themes based on the epithet “nigger” more of an implication. It might just be that he is concerned about being able to release the record to the fans at all-and to quell theories that this is all a publicity stunt. “I want my fans to know that, creatively and lyrically, they can expect the same content and the same messages,” he said. “The people will always know what the real title of this album is and what to call it.”
As of now, the album is … Untitled. I mean, it’s either that, or Nas is one forgetful son-of-a-gun.
The “Be a Nigger Too” video has been out for a few days now, and it seems to be getting rave reviews from all around-for only God knows what. Quite frankly, I must be either watching the wrong video or I am just too damn stupid to get it. Hey, how about neither?
First off, the video itself is a bloated 8 1/2-minute mess. Of its seemingly myriad elements-a black man about to get lynched, a white man pulling out a gun on two young black guys, some audio clips from Malcolm X and Paul Mooney, a facial montage of multi-ethnic America from Andre Royo of The Wire to John Cho of the Harold and Kumar movies-hardly anything ties in together. It tries to be grandiose in presentation and scope, only to come off as annoyingly pretentious and lacking topical cohesiveness.
But the video is only half the problem, at the very most. I blame the song, too-even more so than the video itself. Since it hit the streets in late April, the Nas fanatics have surely proved their adeptness-that is, by chucking the art of discernment out the window. “Be a Nigger Too” is simply not the bastion of social commentary several people make it out to be. Listen to the lyrics: Just what on earth is he saying? Or more importantly, what exactly is he trying to do with the word “nigger”? Does it only apply to the guys with the extra-long “third leg[s]”? Or just the dudes infatuated with purchasing Aston Martins? Or does it just apply to black Americans, and thus eschews their African counterparts? How about generations of blacks, from the Civil Rights era to its aftermath? And is it really “nigga,” not “nigger”? Nas is hardly ever clear throughout the song, apparently throwing in disparate thoughts without bothering to tie them all up to make a clear statement.
But maybe there is one broad underlying theme: that of the removal of the sting from the most infamous epithet ever created. And how does Nas do that? Apply it to everyone, regardless of race-even marrying the accursed word to other racial and ethnic epithets. “I’m a nigger, he’s a nigger, she’s a nigger, we some niggers, wouldn’t you like to be a nigger too?” he sings in the hook. “To all my kike niggers, spic niggers, guinea niggers, chink niggers-that’s right, y’all my niggers too!”
Yes, the chorus is inspired by that Dr. Pepper slogan. However, in morbid actuality, Nas’ appropriation is more of a reference to an earlier rap song than the soda commercial jingle. Eazy-E had done it almost two decades earlier-in the outro of N.W.A.’s “Nigga 4 Life” from the 1991 album Efil4zaggin (Niggaz 4 Life spelled backwards). That Nas borrows a few lines from one of the most nihilistic and parodistic records ever created only confirms why I sometimes feel the whole affair comes off as “shock for shock’s sake.”
And seriously, assuming that this is his intention, how successful does Nas really think he is going to be in this particular musical mission? The word “nigger” is exactly as it’s spelled or intended for. “Nigger”: used to denigrate and dehumanize an entire race. You can turn “figure” to “figga” and “trigger” to “trigga” all you want, but they will still mean the same thing, no matter how many letters are replaced or removed. (Funny enough, several rappers used the two aforementioned words 95% of the time to rhyme with the n-word between couplets. So much for “term of endearment!”) If years of blacks (and other races, for that matter) using it amongst themselves hasn’t still quite removed the sting completely, not to mention black entertainment figures from Richard Pryor to Ol’ Dirty Bastard using it in their album titles, who is Nas fooling that him, an artist of marginal influence beyond the world of rap, can do any differently? In fact, that the album is not going to be called Nigger after all only confirms my contention: the word will always retain its original meaning, “nigga” or not.
Sadly, this will undoubtedly lend credence to the theory that the Nas of today needs some sort of gimmick to stay relevant in the rap game. Sure, such accusations were also raised in the months leading up to the release of Hip Hop Is Dead, but at least Nas managed to make a sincere and topically engaging record about a genre mired in stagnancy that is arguably surpassed by none other in his catalog apart from the unsurpassable Illmatic. But this? His most ardent detractors can now point, with glee, at the diminishing returns of Nas’ socio-political shtick. There was a time when Nas could go platinum without even trying; even his widely acknowledged worst album, Nastradamus, earned a platinum plaque. But his middling 2004 double-disc opus Street’s Disciple took two years to accomplish such a feat. I seriously doubt that Hip Hop Is Dead would have had a quarter of its sales if Nas hadn’t latched on to that “hip-hop-is-dead” theory. And still, he only “managed” to sell a little over 700,000 copies. Chalk it up to an ailing music industry if you will, but it only compounded, not directly caused, the comparatively dismal numbers. Hip Hop Is Dead is actually the poorest-selling album of Nas’ career.
Ultimately, though, Nas is generally a brilliant rapper-one of hip-hop’s greatest-and what I can hope for is a repeat performance of the one he gave two years ago. Hell, he can leave the album untitled for all I care! Nas should just hone the album theme and the messages, work on his still-flawed ear for beats, and consequently make a dope album. Enough of this circus that has been going on for about a year now-even after the controversial album title was dropped.
Or Nas can do something a lot more damning: justify why the word “nigger” perfectly describes him.