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Nas

Street's Disciple (Columbia)

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Now that Jay-Z is retired (albeit in theory only), who's his greatest rival trying to impress with this double-disc extravaganza? Maybe no one but himself: By turns confused, fascinating, frustrating, and brilliant, Street's Disciple justifies its bloat apparently because Nas needed this much room to work out its musings on race, hip-hop's roots, family, and marriage.

Whether or not you agree with his conclusions -- Nas's insistence on "authentic" blackness, which infects "American Way" and the snide "Coon Picnic (These Are Our Heroes)," is indefensible -- the use of his lyrical gifts on themes bigger than his own Queensbridge legend is rewarding.

Disc two contains the payoff. The dramatic one-two, old-school punch of "U.B.R." (an "unauthorized biography" of the great Rakim) and the beat-boxed boast "Virgo" pay as much homage as they rightfully demand. And though the bachelor-party nastiness of "Remember the Times" is an unfortunate but effective prelude, the suite of love songs that follows, pledging allegiance to fiancée Kelis and his daughter, is some of the most moving MC work on record.

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