When Nas announced last year that he would use a racial epithet as the title of his ninth studio album, it smelled like a cheap publicity ploy from a once-great rapper who no longer had much to say. Now that the album, an intense exploration of racial inequality in America, has arrived (sans controversial working title), it seems the stunt was actually a cheap publicity ploy from a once-great rapper who still has a lot to say.
Now that Nas has our attention, he wants to share his every thought, and he often overstuffs the tracks. "America" alone holds an entire album's worth of hot-button issues, including police brutality, the "race dichotomy" and the death penalty. On the similarly distended "Queens Get the Money," Nas discusses his reputation, Huey P. Newton, calculating pi and terrorism in the space of one verse. The density may bolster Nas's reputation for lyrical agility, but concepts whiz by too quickly to further his goal of schooling the masses.
Although the Queens MC doesn't quite achieve the professorial vibe of Chuck D or KRS-One here, he delivers powerful reportage when sticking to detailed, tightly focused stories. On "Sly Fox," Nas goes after Fox News, and directing his anger toward a single target produces inspired vitriol. "Fried Chicken," featuring Busta Rhymes, discusses food by using sex metaphors, urging everyone to resist temptations of the flesh. And the Obama-themed "Black President" ends the album's examination of race on an appropriate note of cautious optimism.
Nas will perform July 27 at Merriweather Post Pavilion as part of the Rock the Bells festival.
-- Sarah Godfrey
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Sly Fox," "Fried Chicken," "Black President"
The Hold Steady
You won't find many albums in the current realm of rock-and-roll more exciting than the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive." So even if three of those albums are the previous efforts by Brooklyn's classic rock revivalists, the fact that "Stay Positive" can stand on the same level is an achievement in itself. Longtime fans might not have a new favorite Hold Steady record, but newcomers are likely to have a new favorite band.
The opening one-two punch of "Constructive Summer" and "Sequestered in Memphis" will make a believer out of anyone, as the quintet flexes every aspect of its bar-band muscle. Monster riffs, Tad Kubler's scorching guitar solos, rousing organ, singalong choruses and Craig Finn's singular lyrical vision of the down and out -- now presented with actual singing instead of rapid-fire speak-spewing -- are all accounted for.