With his Def Jam debut, Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas tried to save hip-hop, or at least set it back on the right course. On his follow-up, he's attempting something really ambitious: a wide-ranging meditation on racial and label politics, the media, Barack Obama, the aborted original title of the album (Nigger), and America's tortured racial history. Like Chuck D back in the day, Nas has much trouble on his mind: With Nas, he's made an epically overreaching album about pretty much everything. It's part Hip Hop Is Dead-style urban manifesto, part op-ed piece minus a thesis. Yet what it lacks in cohesion and focus, it makes up for in ambition and scope. Rarely has a major-label rapper tried to say so much on a single album.
Nas hooked up with producers Cool & Dre, dreamy singer Chris Brown, and rapper The Game on the poppy, out-of-place "Make The World Go Round," and had Polow Da Don whip up a state-of-the-art synthesizer symphony on the first single, "Hero," but otherwise, he opts for a spare, haunted sound that puts the emphasis on rhymes rather than beats. His essentially untitled album features collaborations with The Last Poets and Dead Prez's stic.man, but it'd be easier to take him seriously as a political thinker if he didn't litter his rhymes with references to aliens ("We're Not Alone") and conspiracy theories. Nas finds a wonderful groove in its final third, as the rapper takes a break from heady theorizing to rap allegorically from the perspective of a cockroach and pens a love song to fried chicken. The album-closing "Black President" poignantly samples 2Pac, fretting, "although it seems heaven-sent, we ain't ready to have a black president" as a springboard to contemplate the prospect that Obama could prove 2Pac wrong. True to form, Nas is skeptical, cautiously optimistic, and deeply invested in the soul and future of hip-hop and a country he both loves and hates.