Nas And Kanye West Leak Tracks, Lead The Pack (Again)

"Queensbridge, y'all ready to see Nasty Nas?" Thus begins Nas' "Nasty," a return to form that justifies the answer to that question always being "Yes, duh!" With rugged, street-level bars about the finer things in life and being better than other rappers that recall his legendary post-Jay-Z battle street single from 2002's God's Son "Made You Look," and a slick-tongued flow Nas admits his fans haven't adjusted to, "Nasty" is every bit what its title implies. It also gives hip-hop diehards who have spent the last 15 or so years hoping for a second Illmatic a spoonful of Nas showing off the skills that keep his name in "greatest rapper of all time" debates.

It's not quite as good or vital as "Made You Look," and that owes partly to Salaam Remi's watered-down production. On "Made You Look," Remi warped the familiar "Apache" rhythm to a tight loop with a killer horn hit, and punctuated each verse with a fully earned gunshot effect. He tries the same trick on "Nasty," but the blast isn't as loud, and the intertwined drum loops that form the beat's backbone don't have the same whumph that reconstituted "Apache" horns do. Still, this is a far sight better than some of the beats Nas has rapped over in recent years.

But to Nas purists, it won't matter: this is at least the best Nas has rapped as a solo artist (2009's slept-on Distant Relatives with Damien Marley is a different animal) since The N---er Tape, a prelude to his 2008 album, Untitled. (You know, the one with the N PhotoShop-lashed on Nas' back on the cover?) That mixtape was Nas at his best: painting rudimentary portraits of himself with intricate lyricism, and eschewing the overwrought and pointed social commentary that would be hit ("Sly Fox") or miss ("Fried Chicken") on the album that followed for plainer statements of fact and purpose. Hell, even "Hero," a synth-soaked, Polow da Don-produced, Keri Hilson-assisted cut that went on to soundtrack FOX commercials about its fall 2008 lineup, sounded good in the context of that tape, which also benefited from contributions from DJ Green Lantern and DJ Khalil.

On that tape, Nas seemed fully in control and fully committed to unrepentantly telling the tales of the street in ways he hadn't been since about "Made You Look"; "Nasty" sounds like he's rekindled that flame, if not the one that blazed bright when as an adolescent he laid down Illmatic. And Nas warns that he's "just begun to black" near the end of the second verse: if that's true, Life Is Good, out this fall, could be a towering work. In true Nas fashion, though, his most compelling work in years got overshadowed by rap's most compelling artist at his most compelling, just hours later.

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