Nas The Lost Tapes

When terms like "unreleased" and "b-sides" are bandied around, there's cause to be apprehensive about how good that material is. After all, there's probably a good reason the music was left on the cutting room floor in the first place. Fittingly, the opposite seems to apply to the increasingly contradictory figure of Nas. For various reasons, many of these tracks never made it onto the Queensbridge MC's recent album releases. The head-scratching reality is that much of the material collected here easily surpasses much of his output over the past few years, as he issued albums that ached for commercial acceptance and fell well below his potential. Thankfully, the tracks collected here focus on the elements that made Nas such an acclaimed MC in the mid-'90s. His vivid descriptions, storytelling skills, impressive vocabulary and passionate flow are fully evident. On "Black Zombies," Nas all but admits he's been under some materialistic trance, but has woken up in time to indict the practices of oil companies in Africa, as well as some of the actions of people in his own community. The strong narratives on The Lost Tapes include "Doo Rags," which conjures up Nas's own early hip-hop memories, and "Poppa Was A Playa," a conflicted homage to the failings and the strength of his father, blues musician Olu Dara. There's also the untitled track that has been referred to as "Belly Button Window," or "Fetus," where Nas compellingly rhymes from a prenatal point of view. Even when he's not bound to a concept, he can still mesmerise, as the stream of consciousness flows on "Purple" amply demonstrates. While the production isn't on the peerless level of Illmatic, this ironically may be his most coherent set of songs since that debut. But just as he's regaining respect with this release, and last year's Stillmatic, Nas, true to his contradictory bent, has puzzlingly aligned himself with the Murder Inc juggernaut. The results of that affiliation, due before the end of the year, will be a litmus test to see if he continues his recently impressive output or again bows to commercial pressures. (Columbia)