I have been racking my brains trying to come up with a reason why the new single by Nas featuring the becoming ubiquitous Keri Hilson, "Hero", has not been a huge big hit. It's not only an amazing track, but it's better than almost any "urban" track that has come down the pipeline in 2008, and it's certainly better than anything Timbaland has thrown out after five minutes in a studio. I would say it's also his most obviously mainstream song since his 1999 Aaliyah collaboration, "You Won't See Me Tonight", another excellent song that somehow slipped through the cracks for reasons I can't quite understand. You can view the video clip below.
His new album, Untitled, was a surprise though on the heals of 2006 release Hip-Hop is Dead. I should come to expect a new album by Nas to be good, he's routinely one of the only hip-hop artists that continues to do great work that could be considered great today, but also back in the late '80s and early '90s when the genre was really beginning to spark. He originally tried to have the album titled after one of the album's cut's - that'd be Ni**er - but even though he wasn't able to be that bold, that hasn't stopped Untitled from being an exceptionally strong album and he hasn't had to compromise lyrically.
It’s musically striking with the contrast of piano on "Queens Get the Money", smooth urban jazz on "You Can’t Stop Us Now" and more tradition hip-hop beats spread throughout. As is always the case with Nas though, it is in his lyrics where he really shines, and he doesn't back down. As long as race is an issue within (I assume) any aspect of the world then he will always have plenty of fodder for his work. He's confrontational and abrupt on songs such as "Fried Chicken" and Barack Obama gets multiple shout outs, most notably on album closer "Black President", which uses a marching band soundscape, with not as predictably as you could think given how frequent that has become.
Untitled is quite an achievement for Nas and for music in general. It is the sort of hip-hop record that restores my faith in the genre. Nas is an artist and as long as he continues making albums like this then hip-hop, proper hip-hop, is not dead.