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Music used to be a tremendous tool to press buttons. From the illicit sexuality of jazz to the explicit animosity of N.W.A., music pissed people off and tuned people in. It brought pieces of the world swept under rugs and tossed in back alleys, locked in the basement and locked behind bars, pieces of the world not permitted on green lawns or paved streets, unseen by rosy eyes, unheard by suburban ears, it brought these pieces of the world crashing through the front door. Until recently. Until money mattered more than message.
Nas, the self-titled street poet, rap’s Saul Williams if you will, had set out to reverse the virtues of music, to seat business back behind the music, with his upcoming album. The album he was going to title Nigger. He was going to bring arguably the most controversial word in the English language and slap it right on the dinner table, right next to the steak and potatoes, so that America could eat it, so that fellow rappers could digest its meaning after years of spitting it out so thoughtlessly, so that everyone else could chew it and swallow it and take it into their stomachs, to let it sit there, inside them.
Nas chose the title last year in response to Don Imus’s comments regarding the Rutgers women’s basketball team. He chose it for a reason, for its meaning, for its many uses, for its implications and insinuations. He picked it out of the garbage and threw it back on the table, smack in the middle.
But now he’s tossed it under the table for the dog to eat. On Monday MTV News reported that Nas scrapped the title, that he scrapped any title. Even after Def Jam chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid announced last year that he would “stand firmly behind” Nas and his chosen title, Nas has decided little more than a month before the album is to be released that the album will be untitled.
To cool the coals before extinguishing the fire, Nas told MTV last week, “Everybody is trying to stop the title. …Record stores are gonna have a problem in this day and time selling a record with that title. Who knows what’s gonna turn out and be on that title?”
Nas did. Nas knew that he was playing with fire. Nas knew he was stoking that fire with the title. Turns out Nas was stoking the fire with hot air. Turns out Nas was scared to get burnt. Turns out money means more than the message.
In an attempt akin to a drunk fireman trying to fan the fire by pissing on the flames, Nas announced the new non-title with this disclaimer: “It’s important to me that this album gets to the fans. It’s been a long time coming. I want my fans to know that creatively and lyrically, they can expect the same content and the same messages. It’s that important. The streets have been waiting for this for a long time. The people will always know what the real title of this album is and what to call it.”
Have they? Will they? Have they been waiting for an empty promise, an album that was supposed to ignite a discussion among a people enduring an election year filled with prejudices shaded by white curtains, an album that will now be merely an afterthought if the creativity and the lyrics do not live up to the hype, an album as politically hindered and financially hungry as the politicians we reckon with day to day? Will they know this to be an album boiling over with white-hot relevance, boiling over and under the cover of political correctness? Or will they know this as the album that could have been something, that could have started something? Will this just be another rap album slid under the table, swept under the rug, thrown in the garbage, drowned under dollar signs? Will the people add fuel to the fire Nas was too afraid to get too close? Or will they sweep him too under the rug, his album thrown into the garbage, his fortune gone with the title?
Has Nas made an album that will burn brighter than any title? Or will it turn to ash with its flame? Will they feel guilt or relief when sweeping it under the rug? Will they even be able to? Will Nas even care? Should we?
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