Say this much for Nas: He knows how to draw a parallel. Ever since “Hate Me Now,” he has been calling himself Christ to all within earshot. His comparison makes sense, but for the wrong reason. There hasn’t been much divine about a Nas album for almost a decade, and the only people to crucify Nas are the questionable producers he’s relied on since Illmatic. But it is true that his followers are still waiting on a resurrection. Stillmatic, fueled by the raw, caustic passion of “Ether” and the ambitious “One Mic,” placated the disciples for a bit. The album wasn’t so much a return as it was a reminder that Nas was still a talent to be reckoned with.
God’s Son, Nas’s seventh album, is of the same ilk—it isn’t a resurrection but a reincarnation. Old Nas was a masterful perceiver, a man who could look at a corner and see an entire world complete with its own natives, rules, and culture. New Nas is an enlightened monarch of the ghetto, Maulana Karenga crossed with Superfly. “Justice and freedom, wisdom and understanding/We the lost children of Israel/In this Western World region,” he instructs on “Revolutionary Warfare,” while on “Made You Look,” he brags of brandishing “Grey Goose and whole lotta hydro,” then warns, “My nine’ll spit/Niggas lose consciousness.”
Occasionally Nas takes a break from mixing black nationalism and street knowledge to remind listeners of his ancient claim as rap’s savior. “There’s a new king in the streets you’re gonna get used to/I was the old king in the streets that y’all once hated/But now I reinvented myself, and y’all all waited,” he asserts on “The Cross.” But mostly the new king is happy to dispense uplifting tales to the peasants. On “I Can” Nas tests the waters of child psychology: “Boys and girls listen up/You can be anything in the world, in God we trust/An architect, doctor, maybe an actress/But nothing comes easy, it takes much practice.”
Despite his efforts to fashion God’s Son into a book of light, Nas is plagued by two problems, the first being his inability to assert his will on a track. Nas doesn’t ruin a decent beat, but rarely is he able to improve one. So on God’s Son, when the track is good (“Heaven,” “Warrior Song,” or “Made You Look” ), Nas is good. But when the production goes south (“Zone Out,” “Dance”), he becomes part of the problem.
Nas’s inability to propel a track is compounded by his loss of purpose. In his early years, he achieved greatness as rap’s foremost observer. His gift was never the wisdom he currently believes he was born to impart, but an uncanny perception, which produced cuts like “Project Window” and “Memory Lane.” Whether it was baseheads hustling broken amps, a friend murdered over a sheep coat, or trading a 40 bottle for a lotto ticket, Nas could line up the perfect details to fill in the dark comedy of ‘hood life. Think “One Love,” where Nas advises a juvenile considering murder not to give up his guns, but to catch his victim alone.
No MC ever saw so much on an ordinary street, but having abandoned his role as the ultimate watcher, Nas has rendered himself mediocre. At his worst, he becomes a Tupac clone content to contemplate hackneyed hip-hop maxims, like whether there is a heaven for gangsters (see “Thugz Mansion N.Y.”). A more apt question is whether there is a heaven for a cliché, because several cuts on God’s Son are begging for funerals. The ballad of the learned thug is at least as old as KRS-One, and unlike the Old Nas, it isn’t in need of a second coming.