It's not that Nas doesn't see signs of hope. Four months to election day, history seems like it's footsteps away.
But a part of the Queens-born rapper refuses to forget the fight to get there, especially since all he had to do was look at the racial chaos in the year since he released his last album.
Michael Richards. Jena 6. Don Imus. Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama. Jeremiah Wright. Imus again.
The war for civil rights isn't over in his eyes. It's just a cold war. Nas had to pull a publicity stunt like his new album, called "Untitled" and in stores today, in order to bring all his loose ideas together.
He was originally going to call the album the N-word, and there's still a sting behind that expression. It doesn't matter if Richards is saying it, or if it's Nas himself, or a white kid at one of his concerts. The word grabs people by the ears, the same as when comedian Dick Gregory used it to title his autobiography, when essayist John Ridley put it at the top of his "Manifesto" for Esquire, and when A Tribe Called Quest tried to explain how it had transformed from oppressive to endearing.
Nas's point is the same: (a) shock people into buying the CD and (b) get them thinking about what they're about to hear. He did the same thing by calling his last album "Hip Hop Is Dead." The difference is that Nas uses the shock value to start a broader conversation, throwing the issue in the faces of the people who need to talk about it most.
The new album, immersed in a soul-funk sound with guest spots from the Stylistics and the Last Poets, is contradictory at times, but the idea of building hope through about an hour's worth of music supersedes any effort to brew controversy.
As horns race and cymbals crash over the funk guitar strums of "Ya'll My [Expletive]," Nas says that trying to bury the N-word is noble but pointless. You can't change something that's been that way for years.
"Try to erase me from ya'll memory/ Too late, I'm engraved in history," he raps. "Speak my name and breathe life in me/ Make sure ya'll never forget me."
If anything, giving one word so much power makes it impossible to fight other battles like self-hate. Songs like "Fried Chicken" and "Project Roach" come off cliched and marginally offensive at first but only because a black person can't admit to liking fried chicken or using a can of Raid without being a walking Dave Chappelle sketch.
Nas flips the negative images into metaphors for a love affair with a food that will eventually be the death of the black community and for the resilience of an insect that's universally disgusting.
"Sly Fox" is a spot-on indictment of Fox News, warning people to be aware of the media they consume but also taking clever shots at the network's credibility: "Ya'll own the [New York] Post/ And you [hate] on us?," he says, referring to rappers.
But media scrutiny is a tangent. Nas's point is political. When he raps about Obama becoming president, his lyrics are drenched in a cocktail of hope and skepticism. He lets his words tumble nimbly as he relays a feeling of uncertainty that isn't solely his own: "But on a positive side/ I think Obama provides/ Hope and challenges minds/ Of all races and colors to erase the hate."
But second thoughts creep in slowly. "I'm thinking I can trust this brother/ But will he keep it way real . . . when he wins, will he really care still?"
The hook comes in: "Yes, we can change the world," but you can feel that a part of Nas still doubts it.