It’s been almost ten years since Nasir Jones burst on the scene with Illmatic, a definitive portrait of a young hustler that got by on Nas’ street-poet musings and warm, groove-heavy production. Since then, Nas has been wandering confused through the hip-hop jungle, morphing from up-and-comer to tricked-out gangsta to a bullshit prophet named Nastradamus. 2001’s Stillmatic was supposed to be his comeback, but its muddled intentions more or less confirmed Jay-Z’s accusation that Nas “had a spark when [he] started/But now [he’s] just garbage.”
God’s Son represents a welcome return to form for the twenty-nine-year-old. Nas has rediscovered his introspective side at a time when a lot of mainstream hip-hop has been getting drearily dramatic and self-serious. Discounting his penchant for rote hyperbole (he calls himself “the last real nigga alive”), and some pro-forma shout-outs to God and Biggie, Nas is deft with sorrow-tinged details — about everything from drug addiction to the rap game to failed love.
The music — mostly a dark, sparse boom-bap — follows Nas’ shrewd, crafty approach. The James Brown sample on “Get Down” is an old-school gesture, but it makes for the album’s best track, as Nas’ quick-tongued monotone elegantly folds together tales of street violence and his own rise to fame. Elsewhere he and a sampled Tupac trade soul-baring verses with nothing but an acoustic guitar backing them, and on the Eminem-produced “The Cross,” Nas indulges his Jesus complex over a thin piano loop.
Nas falters halfway through, drifting off into boring-ass filler, the worst of which is “I Can,” a silly stay-in-school ad attached to a Beethoven sample. But even on the worst tracks, Nas’ talent is still impossible to deny, and he may yet have another masterpiece in him. Either way, he’s hip-hop’s Comeback Playa of the Year.