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Nas runs, it seems, on two themes loss and the reclamation of former glory. With God's Son, the Queens rapper plagued by a lack of focus for years makes those themes indistinguishable, finally meeting the challenge of Illmatic, his 1994 masterpiece and albatross as he struggled through mediocrity. Conceptually, the new album is brilliant. Nas offers a narrative that hooks his resurrection on the death of his mother last April. 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 a 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"; its swift, psychedelic "Apache"-sampling beat rocks, and the rapper attacks it 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 on-mike enemy Jay-Z on "Last Real N***a Alive," the latest in a series of brutal attack-raps in the feud ("I was Scarface and you was Manolo"). By song eight, "Book of Rhymes," Nas has the confidence to pull a Dylan, emptying his vault of old lines on poverty, women and fame.

The album rises in intensity until the rapper is finally ready to confront his grief, shifting God's Son from street poetry to pop art. Sampling soul man Eddie Holman, he loses it on "Heaven" "Thinking I'm a lose it/My mom's in chemo/Three times a week/Yo keep tryin' but people it's hard/And God, your young solider ain't sober but I need you." That's deep, and after a slow crawl back into prominence, so is Nas. A few ill-conceived soul collaborations (with Kelis, Alicia Keys and the late 2Pac) keep God's Son from reaching classic status, but even so, the album makes Nas the very early king of 2003.

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Christopher O'Connor