It’s difficult enough to sell albums these days without choosing a title that will automatically alienate certain retail outlets, not to mention consumers. Nas’ decision to title his new album Nigger (expanded from his original title, Nigga ) has set off all kinds of commentary, both pro and con, from many different quarters. But it’s just the latest in a long line of albums to use those words.
Surprisingly, many artists have used the shortened version of the word in an album title before Nas. Most famously, there was late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, whose 1999 solo album was titled N***a Please (with the word elided with asterisks in most uses). A quick scan of the term in All Music Guide’s database brings up everything from N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin (spell it backward) to the Gravediggaz’s Niggamortis — that’s what it was called overseas; in the U.S., it was renamed 6 Feet Deep — Tim Dog’s Bronx Nigga and Yella’s One Mo Nigga To Go and Heather B’s My Kinda N*gga (all from the 1990s).
And though there are certainly fewer instances of it, even Nas isn’t first in line when it comes to choosing Nigger as a title. The most well-known example is late comic genius Richard Pryor, who helped make the word mainstream by naming his 1974 album That Nigger’s Crazy and then following it with 1976′s Bicentennial Nigger. Decades before, white jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow recorded an album in Paris that was released in 2002 under the name White Nigger, and former Beatle John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono openly courted controversy in 1972 with the single “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”
Unlike some of the controversy Nas is getting from such civil-rights leaders as Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, at the time of the Lennon single, black comedian/ civil-rights advocate Dick Gregory defended the use of the epithet in the title and lyrics. The support was not terribly surprising, since Gregory titled his 1964 autobiography “Nigger.”
Other songs that used the term include one by multiracial group Sly and the Family Stone, 1969′s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” which was reprised on the Lollapalooza stage in 1991 by rapper Ice-T and former Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell.
Album covers have spawned a great deal more controversies than titles. Those controversies largely began in the 1960s — when artists began having more say in the way their music was presented — and have spanned most genres of popular music. A few examples: the Beatles’ original cover art for 1966′s “Yesterday” … and Today, which featured the group wearing white lab coats, bedecked with butchered dolls and chunks of meat; Guns N’ Roses’ graphic Robert Williams cartoon on the initial pressings of 1987′s Appetite for Destruction; and the nude sculpture on the cover of Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual in 1990, which was replaced by a white cover with the text of the First Amendment. Even Nirvana’s landmark 1991 album Nevermind, drew some protest due to the exposed penis of the naked baby chasing a dollar on the cover.
A number of album covers have drawn fire (and naughty-bit-eliminating airbrushing) for depicting nudity on their covers: Prince’s Lovesexy, Ministry’s Dark Side of the Spoon, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, the British version of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins and the Black Crowes’ Amorica, which originally featured an attention-grabbing image of a woman’s bikini bottom.
There have also been bans and altered images on shelves for everything from showing the middle finger (Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death and Moby Grape’s self-titled 1967 debut) to a picture of the devil and Jesus (John Cougar Mellencamp’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky) to Uncle Sam on a mortuary slab (Ice Cube’s Death Certificate) to people smoking (Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).
Song titles have also spurred debate and caused some changes when records hit mass-market shelves, such as Nirvana changing “Rape Me” to “Waif Me” on 1993′s In Utero when Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to carry it.
The true test for Nas will be whether any of the major retail chains will insist he censor his album title, or possibly refuse altogether to stock it. A spokesperson for Wal-Mart, one of the largest music retailers in the country, did not return calls for comment at press time, but Amy Von Walter, a spokeswoman for Target, said the album could possibly make it onto shelves there.
“We respect the rights of our diverse guests in choosing to buy or not buy CDs in their originally intended version,” Von Walter explained, citing the company’s policy regarding CDs and DVDs with adult content. “We feel selling edited or sanitized CDs is a form of censorship. Therefore, Target does not edit or buy sanitized versions of CDs, screen the contents of the lyrics [or] review the art inside the CD book.”
However, the company does check the song list and does not stock albums with song titles including the words f— or sh–, and it does review artwork and the CD jacket and will not stock a title if it considers the art offensive.