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Nas runs on two themes: loss and the reclamation of former glory. With God's Son, the Queens rapper, plagued for years by a lack of focus, makes those themes indistinguishable, finally meeting the challenge of Illmatic, his 1994 masterpiece -- and albatross -- as he struggled through subsequent mediocrity. The wake-up calls have Nas on point and on the mend: "You was my strength to carry on/And now I'm good/Job well done" he raps near album's end on "Dance." By then, he's rapping with transcendent authority.

Initially, the album is thugged-out and fierce. With epiphanies in place, he's out to shame the competition. "Made You Look" is one of those battle songs in the tradition of "King of Rock"; it has a swift, psychedelic "Apache"-sampling beat, which the rapper attacks feverishly: "King of the town/Yeah I been that/You know I click-clack where you and your men's at/Do the smurf/Do the wop/Baseball bat/Rooftop like we bringing '88 back." He also assails enemy Jay-Z on "Last Real N***a Alive," the latest in a series of brutal cuts that have marked the feud ("I was Scarface, and you was Manolo"). Rising in intensity until the rapper finally confronts his grief, God's Son shifts from street poetry to pop art. Sampling soul man Eddie Holman, he struggles on "Heaven": "Thinking I'm a lose it/My mom's in chemo/Three times a week/You keep tryin' but people it's hard/And God, your young soldier ain't sober but I need you." That's deep, and after a slow crawl back to prominence, so is Nas.

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Christopher O'Connor

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