Herald rating: 3/5
Those who own Illmatic will have been Nas converts since the mid-90s. A few will have trailed off that following decade, when the New York rapper foundered in the wake of his debut album. But after reminding us of his superiority complex on the excellent Streets Disciple, Nas is back. And he's not happy.
This is the sound of a revered rapper trying to save hip-hop from what he sees as certain death.
Nas spends much of the album getting cranky about new rappers, who he claims ignore hip-hop's art, craft and history.
"Everybody sounds the same, commercialised the game, reminiscing when it wasn't all business," he spits on the title track, a theme repeated on the nostalgic Carry On Tradition, Where Are They Now and Can't Forget About You.
Let's forget for a moment this is his first release on Jay-Z's lucrative label, Def Jam Records because mostly, he can get away with it, what with typically fluid, surprising turns of phrase: "Most intellectuals will only half listen, so you can't blame jazz musicians or David Stern with his NBA fashion issues".
But his uppity stance can make for grim listening and Nas is in danger of turning into a grumpy old man. Negativity breeds contempt, and a handful of young rappers haven't been shy about expressing theirs since this was released.
Although his bleak choice of beats has let him down in the past, contributions from will.i.am and Salaam Remi warm things up here by splicing jazz, soul and rock'n'roll into the title track, Can't Forget About You and Let There Be Light. To hammer home his purist approach, he does away with beats altogether on closing track, Hope.
Only on Who Killed It? does he try his hand at comedy - or is he trying to sound like gangster actor Edward G Robinson? Not surprisingly, it doesn't work.
But if anyone is likely to bring the dying art of hip-hop back to life, it's this grumpy not-so-old man.
It may not be easy to like Nas here, but it's impossible not to admire him.
Label: Def Jam