N-Word, Please.

Posted on June 13, 2008

In just under a month, Def Jam will release Nasir Jones’ ninth studio album. I’m not quite sure what to call it.

For the most part, I’ve steered clear of the much anticipated and even more debated effort. Nas’ iconography is built as much on hype as it is in his discography itself. If I got caught up in every Nasty Nas debate, I’d scarcely have time to memorize Streets Disciple Disc two. I certainly wouldn’t have time to play ultimate frisbee with the QB’s Finest LP. Considering the mid-nineties funk with Puff Daddy over Hate Me Now, the long term Jay beef turned marketing scheme, the minor squab with 50, and the pomp and circumstance of his marriage to his bossy wife– my Nassip-o-meter doesn’t really peak like yours do. It makes me very little nevermind until he’s on my stereo.

Even the debate over the controversial album title didn’t get to me until these last few incarnations. So the album was scheduled to be called Nigger. Yeah? As the wholly patriotic Thickwitness you know me to be, I could barely set down my copy of the First Amendment long enough to phone C. Dolores Tucker. Even when I did dial, the line was busy ’cause she was on Sharpton’s call waiting.

Not to worry. I’m fairly certain that Nas, Def Jam, and Virgin Megastore are still protected under the Bill of Rights. Plus, how could I possibly be offended before hearing the album? If we negated Dick Gregory’s autobiography before cracking the pages, one may never bear witness to the comedic and ethnographic genius therein. I think. I still ain’t read the book. Which is why I can’t really pass judgment on it.

I should say that everything in my Pan-Africanist upbringing taught against using the word. I don’t think I’d even spoken it aloud until I was well into my teenage years– not even in class read alouds of Mark Twain. Or Joseph Conrad. Or neighborhood rap alongs to Biggie or Jigga or Stevie Wonder. (Yes, even Stevie Wonder has said it on track) In recent history, I must admit that the N-word has made it’s way into my vocabulary. Not my daily lexicon, but certainly my monthly. And every last time I use it, I feel guilty. The remnants of the word live in my chest as a reminder that I’m somehow betraying my grandmothers– shame on me.

Conversely, I’m disappointed when tired discourse with which we’re all familiar surfaces. We’re still asking ourselves: Why affirm a word that holds such dismal history for the descendants of enslaved Africans in this county? What happens if white folks start using it? Will there be a series of VH1 celebreality dedicated to finding the truth?

But for me, Nas’ album and the surrounding debate spurn a different set of questions:
At which point does an artist gain authority to use a word consistently directed at him? Why are we comfortable hearing the N-word on each of his eight preceding efforts if we can’t tolerate it as the title? What if the album, heaven forbid, actually spoke towards The State’s niggardly spending on African-American education, health, and general well being? Would it be an acceptable album title then? Is Nas the speaker of his album title, or is it in the voice of say Michael Richards, or that kid on your block? Will there be a Tavis Smiley episode dedicated to paneling the truth?

Both sets of questions, however, fell by the wayside once I heard that he and the label had abandoned his proposed album title. What kind of biyatch move…?

First of all, I’d been looking forward to the release to see if the album could really withstand the enormous responsibility of its moniker. How monumental would it have been if the potential classic began to change the way the hood imagines itself? If it talked about the fact that young black men still feel like niggers — If the album ignites a much needed discussion in the listenership, and sets down a new framework for evaluating our own complicated self affirmation, n-words just may gain their minds.

But the album isn’t going to drop it like that. It’s either called Nas or Untitled, depending on who you’re asking. And that’s what really springs my sprockets. Cause come on, Esco. It’s courageous to begin the debate and see it through to the end. It’s irresponsible art making if it’s just the house that hype built. Which makes me wonder…

Based on my complicated history with the music of Olu Dara’s son, I’d have to assume that the album is much more profound than Kelis’ beadazzled slur lets on. Using Nas’ preceding works as the (cough) blueprint, we can assume that there will be a good deal of autobiography. There will be an indictment or two of the way this country operates. The production will be reflexive of a midnight drive at high speeds down the BQE, and my boy Ramon Cabrera reliving each line as gospel. Nasir is the truth.

I think.

What burns deepest is the possibility that the album title could be swapped out for his own, given name. If the album, years in the making at this point, can easily be renamed– if each track applies to both Nas and the antecedent title, something’s worth inspecting. Is “Nas” a placeholder for “Nigger”? The man who was once God’s son? Escobar? Kid Wave? Are we to distill that after nine albums QB isn’t far from where it began? What does Nas lose if he becomes the epithet’s stand in? What does he stand to gain?

And if the album remains untitled come July 15th, what does it say about our readiness to listen? How does one hear the truth in word, if she is to scared to look at it? Or will a blank spot on the album cover forever point to the word too taboo to say aloud?

1 Reply to "N-Word, Please."

  • Daniel
    June 19, 2008 (4:35 pm)

    I’ll give Nas the benefit of the doubt and say he’s trying to make a genuine political statement.

    But is it at least possible that he’s also trying to distract from his music being, well, bad?

    For understandable reasons, people are talking far more about the name of this album and a lot less about how truly awful Nas is at picking beats. And the last single I heard off this album sounded like he forgot to rap, but not gradually over the last ten years. It sounds like he got in the booth, and right there at that moment, suddenly forgot how to rap. Like you know how someone might have a stroke and the part of the brain that controls speech is suddenly rendered useless while other parts continue to function normally? It sounds like that, but with rapping. I can’t help but imagine his face as he’s laying down the hook, confused and dismayed, especially during those heartbreakingly awkward pauses where I can visualize him coming to grips with the reality that at that particular moment, rapping is just not gonna happen for him.

    Ok, I’m sorry. I’m not suggesting Nas had a stroke. That’s terrible. But I am gonna say that his single is a perfect example of how not to write a song. First, he obviously wrote the lyrics BEFORE he got the beat. Then, he picked a beat, a boring one (c’mon, you’re telling me that out of all of Toomp’s beats, the guy who produced Kanye’s Good Life, THAT’s the one he chose???), and tried to wedge his song into it with all the grace of me assembling Ikea furniture and ignoring all the leftover parts at the end.

    Apologies if this veered from the original topic of this post, but I wonder how much more inclined I’d be to respect Nas’s political perspective if he could just muster up the ability to put out some listenable material again.

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