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Fighting the Power

Rapper Nas steps back into the ring, fists flying

Contrary to the view of rap revisionists, neither I Am ... nor Nastradamus is a disaster; each has its share of worthy songs. But the albums suffer from being too messianic and from a certain failure of imagination epitomized by "Hate Me Now." The tune got oodles of press when its co-star, the ubiquitous Sean "Puff Daddy" (or is it "P. Diddy"?) Combs, demonstrated how upset he was at being shown nailed to a cross in the "Hate Me Now" video by assaulting a record-company exec. But despite its notoriety, the number was crass and stupid, bringing out the worst in Nas.

The title of Stillmatic can be read as defensive; it may be Nas's way of insisting that he's still as good as he was during his Illmatic days. But the cover photo, which pictures him as an old-school B-boy, suggests a return to his roots, and so does the presence of two Large Professor-helmed offerings, "You're Da Man" and "Rewind." The lyrics of the latter are also a good sign, in that they're structured in an ambitious manner: The action takes place in reverse chronological order ("The bullet goes back in the gun/The bullet hole's closin' this chest of a nigga/Now he's back to square one"). The method can't help but recall the movie Memento, but Nas hasn't seen the flick. "I came up with that on my own," he says.

The most intricate effort, though, is the CD's closer, "What Goes Around," which finds Nas turning his verbal guns on elements of society that he sees as exterminating his people, including "radio and TV poison" and "white Jesus poison."

"There's a lot of lies capping into the media and through the TV," he says. "There's a lot of lies even in religion if you really go back to what's happened through years and years and years. Now it's more of a mind game. I don't think there's a lot of pure people who really love God. I don't think Jesus was a Christian, and I don't think Jesus was white.

"I won't say that they're lying intentionally," he goes on. "They're just representing for who they see him as. But it's still poison. You don't know certain things aren't good for you until you wind up dead, you know what I'm saying? And some people don't know that you need to look at things from more than one angle."

He advises U.S. citizens to take this same approach to their president, whom he name-checks near the conclusion of "What Goes Around": "George Bush killer till George Bush kills me." In a post-Sept. 11 world, such comments probably make suits at major labels nervous, but Nas says no one at Columbia has tried to muzzle him.

"They didn't do that, because it was just me having my freedom of speech," he says, "and, really, me voicing my opinions about [Bush's] being a murderer. If I feel like he's a murderer, he's a murderer, and he needs to talk to the common people and give us some understanding on why there's so much murder and death -- with him frying people in Texas up to slaughtering people in Third World or foreign countries over things that aren't clear to us over here."

This comment implies that Nas isn't convinced that terrorists directed from Afghanistan were responsible for the September terrorist attacks. But when invited to elaborate, he takes a half-step backward: "In a nutshell, I just think that there's a whole lot going on that the American public doesn't even understand, isn't ready to understand and has no idea about." He adds, "I think people want to know the truth, but everybody's scared of total reality. If we really had an idea of what's going on in this world, well, phew -- you know?"

Nas is just as dodgy when it comes to explaining the allusions he's made about possibly retiring from the hip-hop game. He says he'll likely quit "soon" because "I did what I did. I feel that I've grown as a human, and rap is just one of the things I want to do now. I want to make room for a lot of other things, too."

Does that mean he's ready to announce that he's made his last comeback? The answer Nas gives is elegant in its simplicity. "No," he says. And he doesn't say anything more.

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