In the dizzying two and a half years of innumerable mixtapes and feature verses that led up to the release of Tha Carter III, there was such an inflation of expectations that it seemed unlikely that Lil’ Wayne could release anything that would live up to them. Interestingly enough, Wayne’s release had almost the opposite result one would expect from such an intensely hyped release. Rather than be disappointed by the album for not being perfect, fans started to promote this admittedly good album as Wayne’s classic, despite its inconsistencies.

Unfortunately for Lil’ Wayne, his bid to release a classic has been upstaged barely a month later by a release from the pantheon of artists he is trying to join. Nas, of course, has been approaching Wayne’s challenging task of creating a classic from the opposite direction, having tried, fruitlessly, to live up to Illmatic and having the onus of recreating it on him ever since its release. It is safe to say that Nas will never make another Illmatic, but he has just dropped the hip hop album of 2008 that most deserves to be called a classic.

There will probably always be people who consider Untitled to be an unacceptable capitulation of message, and The Nigger Tape has already been hailed as the great album that Nas could have released this year. There are a number of reasons that these points can be glossed over, but the main reason that Untitled can be considered a great album is that it has an excellent and unified aesthetic to which the first of these detractions contributes and which the second does not have.

Specifically, Untitled is an incredibly effective album because Nas keeps both his lyrics and his sound palette focused on the racial themes so intensely underlying the work.

Since Illmatic Nas has been criticized for trying to adjust his style to be radio-friendly, but even the concessions on this album, “We Make The World Go Round” and “Hero,” fit in nicely with its soulful ambience. The polished soul sounds on Untitled paint Nas’ lyrical masterpiece in black and chrome, giving the album a sinister, alarming backdrop that seems perfectly conjured for both the current political climate and the contradictions lacing Nas’ persona. Starting with Jay Electronica’s throwback piano loops on “Queens Get The Money,” the album embraces Nas’ gritty simplicity, while beats like the sparkly synths on the Polow da Don-produced “Hero” build up Nas’ glamorous aura. Overall, these are Nas’ most consistent and logical beats since Illmatic.

Stepping out from the dramatic stage these beats provide, Nas arrives like a prophet for a world oppressed from every angle. Unconcerned with anything other than the urgency of his message, Nas paints bleak pictures and unrelentingly attacks authority. In many artists’ hands, this album could come off as paranoid, unfocused, and poorly realized. Nas steps away from many of the clichés that haunt so many socially aware rappers, though, making well-founded claims, basing his complaints in anecdotal realities, and refusing to compromise his contradictory materialism.

The ideological odyssey begins with the twisted, often nonsensical imagery of “Queens Get The Money,” establishing Nas’ purpose before he heads into the brilliantly sequenced discussion of the next fourteen tracks. The first sequence of tracks, “Can’t Stop Us Now,” “Breathe,” and “We Make The World Go Round” charts a progression from slavery through socio-economic oppression to the materially obsessed world of radio hip hop, on the three tracks, respectively. In a brilliant move, “Make The World Go Round,” the obvious radio single here, actually satirizes itself due to its placement on the album. Nas, having charted the ascendancy to overly material hip hop in this thematic buildup, immediately pledges to save hip hop as a “Hero” in the following track. From there, the album turns intensely political for “America” and “Sly Fox,” Nas’ tirade against Fox News, before the calm ending of the first half of the album, “Testify.”

Having created an effective ideological landscape for the album, Nas uses the second half to explore racial stereotypes and plunge into the etymology of the word “nigger.” After the album’s tour de force, “Y’all My Niggas,” the sappy racial harmony track “We’re Not Alone,” which is the only truly disappointing track on the album, builds toward the redemptive climax of “Black President.” Over a sample from 2Pac’s “Changes,” “Black President” is a triumphant but tortured reflection on the possibilities that exist on the eve of an Obama victory.

By the time the final track arrives, it is clear that this album is a distinct product of the times, channeling the intense climate of frustration in the America of 2008 that has grown to a head during the Bush years. Yet beyond the anger and the invectives to watch PBS (possibly the first time that’s ever happened on a mainstream rap release), this is primarily an examination of race in America, and particularly of that one word that Nas couldn’t name his album.

Nas characterizes being a “nigger” as a condition of oppression. In “America” he claims that he’d “Love to sit in on the Senate/ And tell the whole government/ ‘Y’all don’t treat women fair/ She read about herself in the bible/ Believing she the reason sin is here/ You played her, with an apron/ Like bring me my dinner, dear / She the nigger here’” before asking “Ain’t we in the free world?” He also peers into the racial difficulties that reach deeper than the words, pointing out, “We in chronic need of a second look of the law books/ And the whole race dichotomy/ Too many rappers, athletes, and actors/ But not enough niggas in NASA.” The word, he claims in “Project Roach,” is never going away. The racism and social difficulties exacerbated by a history of oppression are deeply entrenched.

Yet in the depths of this etymological quandary where “an elite group” is “making all, ethnicities, colors, and creeds niggers,” Nas finds some hope for the word. In “Y’all My Niggas,” he concludes: “We changed the basis of derogatory phrases/ And I say it’s quite amazing/ The use of ghetto terms/ Developed our own language.” It’s not a particularly reassuring idea in the face of the world that Nas has depicted, but it’s all there is to offer.

Other than, of course, the promise of the post-racial future that Barack Obama embodies.

“Black President” offers the redemption at the end of this bleak album that Nas sees Barack Obama offering to an America at a point of bleak frustration. The dichotomies exist, of course: Nas wonders “What’s the black prez thinkin’ on election night?/ Is it how can I protect my life?/ Protect my wife?/ Protect my rights?/ Every other president was nothin’ less than white,” but he sees the promise of a regime that “challenges minds/ Of all races and colors to erase the hate.” Ultimately, though, Nas’ depiction of Barack Obama is fascinating because it calls to mind the same problems facing a rapper riddled with the pressure of creating a classic. Much in the way that Nas or Lil’ Wayne’s fans might wonder if their favorite rapper can deliver an expected classic album, Nas foreshadows the inevitable disappointment with Obama’s almost messianic reception in an America exasperated with Republican scare tactics. Nas asks, fearfully, “When he wins, will he really care still?”

I wish that I had an answer for Nas, but it’s impossible to say what Barack Obama’s legacy will be as president. Perhaps the only wisdom I can impart is that Nas himself proves that expectations can sometimes be met. He may be only marginally improving on his purported one hot album every ten years average (make that every seven years, Jay), but, with Untitled, Nas has delivered a great album whose powerful examination of the difficulties plaguing America achieves its almost literary ambitions.

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