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Return of the Prodigal Son

Hip-hop’s “King of New York” competition has entered an intriguing three-way standoff. NYC politics may seem parochial to Nelly and Eminem, who have enough Grammys, groupies and green to ignore the race. For the rest of us, though, the ongoing contest pitting Jay-Z against Nas and now 50 Cent provides some rousing entertainment to break the monotony of Ja Rule duets, DMX movies and commercials for Girls Gone Wild: Doggystyle.

50 Cent is the wild card, a cocksure thug rapper who wears bulletproof vests like Nelly sports Band-Aids. His rhymes lack sophistication, but a grand sense of humor makes his current Get Rich or Die Tryin’ a rollicking ride. That’s more than you can say about the dour Jay-Z on The Blueprint 2 (2002), where Jigga sounded more defensive than domineering. This year’s bewildering The Blueprint 2.1 all but admits how lackluster the original was. Though Nas doesn’t have 50 Cent’s street credibility or Jay-Z’s effortless charm, his gift for language and lyricism towers when he’s at his best. It’s just taken him a while to rediscover that talent.

Two years ago, Nas seemed DOA, having wasted away on listless albums like I Am . . . (1999), Nastradamous (1999) and QB’s Finest (2000). With Stillmatic (2001), Nas’ loyal fans were trumpeting his return à la Ali in the Congo, and he displayed tangible passion on songs like “One Mic” and “Ether.” Yet despite the creativity of “Rewind” or his superior storytelling skills on “2nd Childhood,” Stillmatic wobbled with filler.

The Lost Tapes (2002) compilation was more convincing, showing that underneath the platinum chains and designer gear, the lyricist behind Illmatic (1994) still lurked. He was as brilliant as ever on the meditative “Doo Rags” and the dramatic “Blaze a 50,” and though The Lost Tapes wasn’t as polished as Stillmatic, the album served as a bridge for Nas’ true return to form.

God’s Son (Christmas 2002), Nas’ most promising album since Illmatic, has brought an incisive urgency out of hibernation. His songs are imbued with qualities we’ve seldom heard before — a complicated mix of optimism, melancholy, bravado, regret and, most of all, conviction. Nas is not only God’s son but also just a son, mourning the death of his mother. The album plays as an elegy to Moms, as he promises he won’t slip, won’t stop.

His mother’s presence is felt not just on songs directly dedicated to her, like the affecting “Dance” (“If I could only have/one more dance with you mama”); her passing also suffuses Nas with a sense of greater purpose, beyond pop charts and magazine covers. On “I Can,” he exhorts his young brethren to realize their potential through hard work and not fast living, while on “Thugz Mansion,” he “duets” with 2Pac to muse on finding paradise for the persecuted. Nas has always been a penetrating lyricist; with God’s Son he emerges as a raging philosopher/ warrior/poet.

Nas revels in his own mastery on songs like “Made You Look,” where he instructs fans to “Put your hand up/that you shoot with/count your loot with/push the pool stick in your new crib/same hand that you hoop with/swing around like you stupid.” Likewise, his arresting “Get Down” pairs two cinematic narratives filled with courtroom hostage dramas and motel-room shootouts. On one of his most memorable songs, “Last Real Nigga Alive,” Nas recounts the history of New York’s hip-hop feuds, chronicling Biggie’s rise to fame and beef with the Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas’ own competition with Jay-Z. More than a self-serving autobiography, the song speaks aloud secrets that were only whispered rumor before.

Musically, Nas’ albums have been produced by ensemble, and that’s weakened their sonic consistency, but God’s Son is more coherent than most. Alongside the Alchemist, Chucky Thompson and Alicia Keys, Nas has recruited Salaam Remi, who’s been MIA since the mid-’90s, to produce the album’s key songs. Remi takes a decidedly old-school approach, using James Brown licks on “Get Down” and the b-boy drums of “Apache” for “Made You Look,” and the result is a comfortingly familiar sound that’s retro with style, like an old leather jacket worn with flair.

God’s Son has helped put Nas back on top — for the moment. No doubt Jay-Z is plotting his own comeback, and 50 Cent is one of many ambitious upstarts. In the face of all this, Nas makes the most of his own philosophy, expounded on “Mastermind”: “This King of New York shit only last 15 minutes/Every nigga get burned, but it’s what you did with it.”


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