Nas Stillmatic

Ever since dropping Illmatic in 1994, Nasir Jones has been one embattled MC. Every single album he's released since that certified classic has gotten progressively worse, marking him as a consistent underachiever. Then, last year Jay-Z challenged him onstage at a NYC concert. Nas replied on a mix-tape, freestyle rhyming over Eric B & Rakim's "Paid In Full," dissing Jay-Z and promising his new material would get back to his original essence. Well, a lot of things have happened since then, as Nas was torn to shreds on Jay-Z's "Takeover," Nas responded with "Ether," included here, and then Jay-Z came back with the below-the-belt mix-tape diss "Super Ugly." Through all of this, though, Nas has admirably remained true to his initial promise to come back to the levels of artistry on his debut. While it doesn't reach the levels he's capable of, Stillmatic does feature some of Nas's most potent rhymes in years. Battles with other MCs always seem to elevate the skill level of the artists involved, and Nas is no exception. "What Goes Around" finds Nas branding a laundry list of social ills as "poison" in compelling fashion and "2nd Childhood," with Illmatic contributor DJ Premier, resurrects Nas's vaunted keen eye for detail. But a triumphant return for Nas is thwarted by Stillmatic's inconsistency. However, it's his attempts to recreate parts of his first album that fall flat. He recruits the long-revered, yet low profile, Large Professor, who produced a number of tracks on his debut, to appear here, but his beats sound surprisingly flat on the dull Memento rip-off "Rewind." AZ, the only other MC to appear on Nas's debut, drops by on "The Flyest," but there's nothing particularly special about the track. While it's evident Nas is really trying to say something meaningful, he's often let down by weak production. "Rule," a song that directly addresses September 11th and its fallout, has good intentions, but is badly executed, with its sample of Tears For Fears "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." These missteps are magnified when Nas himself loses focus, as "Braveheart Party" is a lame follow-up of sorts to the "Oochie Wally" hit his protégés the Bravehearts had last year, and sounds hopelessly out of place. While it's good to see Nas, for the most part, get lyrically back on track, Stillmatic lacks the consistency that anyone who has listened to his debut can attest to. (Columbia)