Nas is cursed. Ever since the release of 1994’s seminal Illmatic, the Queensbridge representer has faced impossibly high expectations. More often than not he’s failed to live up to them—caught between his promise as a latter-day Rakim and the chase for fame and fortune. Following a string of subpar post-Illmatic efforts, however, he sounded re-energized on 2006’s solid Hip Hop Is Dead, which led to sky-high expectations for the follow-up.

Nas’ original desire to use the N-word to title the project, combined with evocative cover art (scars on his back, presumably from a slavemaster’s whip, making an “N”) and a string of aborted release dates, created an atmosphere of intense anticipation for the eventually untitled disc. And the wait was worth it.

Nas delivers a solid album that’s heavy on what’s made him a legend—lyricism, storytelling, introspection and social consciousness. The middle stretch and very end of the 15-song album show Nas at his best. On “Testify,” Nas asks nonblack supporters to join him in revolution. “N.I.*.*.E.R.” is a call for blacks to learn about their ancestry. In the vein of Illmatic’s “I Gave You Power”—where he rapped as if he were a gun—“Fried Chicken” finds Nas and Busta Rhymes using sexual adjectives to describe the greasy, high-cholesterol food favored by many blacks. “Sly Fox” flips the middle finger to network media (and Fox News in particular): “Fox has a bushy tail, and Bush tells lies/So I don’t know what’s real.”

There are some missteps. “Hero” over-asserts Nas’ importance in hip-hop. “Make the World Go Round,” which features Chris Brown, and “We’re Not Alone” evoke the radio-friendly garbage of his early years (think “Oochie Wally”). But “Black President” provides a fitting end to a strong effort, rejoicing in Barack Obama’s candidacy without getting overly sentimental. Nas wonders aloud if Obama will remember his supporters: “When he wins, will he really care still?”

The bottom line:***1/2


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