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The wizard of Nas: Nas creates high minded street-hop with a message

Spirituality and rap music may seem about as contradictory as a warm hug and a gunshot to the chest — but not to Nas. In fact, Nas has been mixing beauty with brutality since he began his career in the early ’90s. Not that he’s turned religious — don’t make us laugh — it’s just that Nas has matured over the past few years, and on his latest CD, “God’s Son,” ethereal matters have seeped into his music.

Maybe his mother’s death had something to do with it. She died of cancer last year and Nas, now in his late-20s, was devastated. “God’s Son” is dedicated to her with a picture of her in the liner notes, and Nas’s father, famous jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, plays horns on “Dance,” a moving tribute about his wish to have one last slow dance with her, as he did at his wedding.

Nas also reaches out to ghetto children in his song “I Can,” which samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” The refrain, sung by children, may sound a little trite — “I know I can/Be what I want to be/If I work hard at it/I’ll be where I want to be” — but the message is from the heart and the concept is a new one for Nas, showing his more sensitive side.

Not that Nas has gone soft either. No less than seven songs on the CD, including “Last Real Nigga Alive,” remind us that he’s still as nasty as he ever was. “Made You Look,” with its blasting gunshots and chants of “bravehearts” is probably the most ghetto-ready rap anthem since B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” and it has been booming from car windows since it dropped a few months ago.

Other songs, however, sound almost trip-hoppy, as if mixed by DJ Shadow or Tricky of Maxinquaye fame. But Nas hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from. If anything, the streets are more present in “God’s Son” than they ever were in “Illmatic” or “Stillmatic,” his two best CDs to date. It’s just that Nas’s pain has deepened him, making him a more rounded artist.

Born in the ’70s in the Queensbridge housing projects of Long Island City, Nas, whose real name is Nasir Jones, was raised by his single mother, and according to his own lyrics, he always felt very loved and protected by her. He even raps that it was her influence that turned him from street hustling to rapping, a decision that brought him in contact with fellow Queens rapper Large Professor, who later invited him to rap on the Main Source single “Live at the Barbecue.”

Nas’s few lines — “Streets disciple/My rhymes are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain, just like a rifle” — hinted at a new direction for rap music, and Nas soon caught the attention of other New York rappers, including MC Serch of 3rd Bass.

Serch invited Nas to rap on the Zebrahead soundtrack in 1992, when he was still a teenager, and his single “Halftime” resulted in a record deal with Columbia. Nas’s first CD was “Illmatic,” and it was an immediate success. The Village Voice even hailed him as “one of the most important writers of the century,” a comment that seems almost manic today, but one that also reveals the impact his new rapping style was having on unaccustomed ears. Never before had rap music been so fast and fluid — a style which is now perpetuated by nearly every rapper out there, from Eminem to Missy Elliott.

Also, when “Illmatic” broke in 1994, rap music was largely West Coast-dominated, with heavy funk influences. With Nas’s second album “It was Written,” things began to change. Released in 1996, with the help of Dr. Dre, it was one of the first bi-coastal collaborations and also the first to bridge the gap between the two divergent styles. The New York rap explosion soon followed. Black Moon, Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy, Wu-Tang Clan, Lil Kim, and countless others burst onto the scene, and Nas was placed at the top by the media as “The King of New York Rap.”

Of course, there were still a few misfires for Nas. Even hardcore fans were about to give up on him during his “I Am” and “Nastradamus” years. But these blanks were followed by multi-platinum hits like “Stillmatic” in 2001 and the remix “Illmatic to Stillmatic” in 2002. His new album “God’s Son,” however, surpasses both of these. Never has his style been so versatile and his lyrics so truthful. As Nas once said, it takes just one mic to change the world, and by revealing his heart and speaking his truths, Nas is now changing the world more than he ever has — and this new change is for the better.

Nas (a.k.a. Nasty Nas, Nas Escobar, Esco, and Nasir Jones) is currently on tour. Visit his official Web site at www.godsson.net for summer tour dates.

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