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Street's Disciple (Columbia)

For Nasir Jones, the stakes are always high. His 1994 debut, Illmatic, consistently appears on shortlists of the best rap albums ever, while his next five releases are barely mentioned. With every Nas album, millions of rap fans across the world hope for another Illmatic. But, as evidenced by Street's Disciple, what legions of haters frequently called "falling off" is better viewed as a search for musical identity.

Illmatic owes its success not only to Nas' lyrical genius but also to the grimy backbeats. The credits read like a New York production hall of fame; simply put, almost anybody would sound good over those beats. His subsequent albums saw very few weak lyrical performances but certainly had their share of questionable beats. With every release, the music became the X-factor.

On 2002's God's Son, Nas began cultivating his own sound with ex-Fugees producer Salaam Remi. The lead single, "Made You Look," was a breakthrough collaboration, a classic track featuring a rejuvenated Nas over beats worthy of the New York streets. Not only had he begun to discover his ideal sound, but he'd also hooked up with a producer with a great ear. Remi stuck with Nas on Street's Disciple, and the result is the best Nas album in years. Nas not only sounds great, but he unleashes some of his most inspired verses. "American Way" is a scattered tirade on the nation's status, with shots taken at P. Diddy and a spoken hook from Kelis (the new Mrs. Nasir Jones). Nas shows love to the fallen on "Just A Moment," with solid help from newcomer Quan on the hook and the first verse. Despite being two discs long and featuring album art depicting Nas as Jesus, Disciple is a well-planned, very personal album, the culmination of several years of musical soul-searching and heavy critique. Disciple may not be the best Nas album, but it is undoubtedly the first true Nas album.

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More by Andrew Friedman

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