BY RUDY SIMPSON It may be a cliche to say that controversy sells records, but that doesn’t make it any less true. By that metric, Nas is poised to go mega-platinum with his forthcoming release, the unspeakably titled Nigger. That is, assuming a hip-hop album — or any album for that matter — can still go mega-platinum in this day and age. I am beginning to have my doubts. Nas is no stranger to provocation. He proclaimed that “Hip Hop is Dead” with his last release and even rhymed on wax that he “waves automatic guns at nuns” in a lyric from his debut. In the course of his 15-plus year run in the rap game, he has survived a well-publicized feud with Jay-Z (subsequently making up with Jay and signing to Def Jam during his former rival’s tenure as President), posed on the cross as the modern incarnation of Jesus in his “Hate Me Now” video clip (which also spawned the infamous Diddy-smashing-the-bottle-upside-Steve-Stoute’s-head episode), transitioned from the underground’s favorite thug poet to a flamboyant hustler (a persona shift helped along by a set of glossy Hype Williams videos) back to the poet again.
These moments, however, may pale in comparison to the controversy sure to follow the title of Nas forthcoming release. The reality is, an album called Nigger would be controversial in most any climate. However, the current state of affairs finds hip-hop forever in the shadow of the lame Imus-esque finger pointing, and particular attention being paid to The Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name. So much so that the NAACP held a burial service for the word, and numerous cultural critics and some within hip-hop itself have called for its abolition. As ingrained as the word has become in the hip hop world particularly, it finds a new champion in Nas, willing to use the N-Bomb with a casual boldness not seen since the days of Dick Gregory?
Admittedly, these musings arrive before hearing a single track off the forthcoming album, which was slated for a February release, but still hasn’t produced a first single, and there is certainly the potential, in naming an album Nigger that meaningful discourse on the history, social ramifications, and, most importantly, the evolution of the word could be forthcoming. To date however, there hasn’t been much real discourse at all. Some of this is because supporters of the album title hinge their arguments in support of free speech and artistic license, which is fine, but many fail to delve deeper into the purpose behind using the word in this way and what is to be gained. 50 Cent told XXL it’s a “stupid title.” Fiddy, not necessarily a fount of creative album titles himself (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, The Massacre, or Curtis), is referring to the costly hassles you inevitably encounter when trying to get a CD called Nigger into WalMart in Cow’s Ass, Indiana. Jesse Jackson calls it “morally offensive and socially distasteful. Nas has the right to degrade and denigrate in the name of free speech, but there is no honor in it. Radio and television stations have no obligation to play it and self-respecting people have no obligation to buy it. Many wish he would use his talents to lift up and inspire, not degrade.”
Nas has yet to explain how naming his album Nigger will accomplish anything beyond making folks angry and encouraging bigots to hide behind the First Amendment. I would like to hear a public conversation about how this word can mean so many different things to different people, from a term of endearment to the most vicious racial slur; how a word can have multiple meanings and find varying degrees of acceptance depending on the context. These are the ironies and nuances on race and linguistics that never get discussed when you make it “The N-Word” or the word that can only be said by a chosen few, and then only in the most intimate of contexts. And while we are on the topic there is something infantile about grown men and women referring to ‘the N-word’ like they are talking about poo-poo undies or something. It’s just a word. Say it. Or don’t. But for God’s sake stop acting like you are talking about S-E-X in front of a five year old. Maybe Nas is onto something. It could be that all of the critics are really missing the point. By titling his album Nigger, Nas is not only forcing the word into public discourse he is baiting us, almost forcing us to use it. But that’s the easy part — getting people to say bad words is shooting fish in a barrel. As of this writing the jury is still out on whether Nas is just going for cheap shock-and-awe or whether he plans to finish the conversation he started.