Following a classic debut and a string of commercially successful but critically maligned follow-ups, Nas scored an artistic comeback with Stillmatic, an album that made good on its title's promise of a return to Illmatic form. Revitalized by his much-publicized battle with Jay-Z, Nas adopted the mantle of hip-hop's conscience: In a one-man bid to save rap from his enemies, Nas attacked Jay-Z for being sexist, Funkmaster Flex for accepting payola, and a New York radio station for not allowing a mock-lynching of Jay-Z during a station-sponsored concert. Such moves might have damaged the career of a lesser artist, but Nas' epic display of chutzpah only enhanced his outlaw image. Still hot off Stillmatic's buzz, he returns with two albums: God's Son, the studio follow-up to Stillmatic, and The Lost Tapes, a collection of songs recorded during the sessions that produced I Am... and Stillmatic. After years of gimmicky, trend-obsessed production and glossy, radio-friendly hooks, Nas stripped his sound down to its bare essence on Stillmatic. The Lost Tapes and God's Son follow suit, offering melancholy production that places an emphasis on Nas' ferocious flow and incisive lyrics. Veteran producer Salaam Remi produced much of God's Son, and while the album's Remi-produced knockout single "Made You Look" is as notable for its monster sample of The Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" as for its lyrical content, Remi's work otherwise seldom calls attention to itself. A masterpiece of brawling braggadocio, "Made You Look" has a celebratory swagger that makes it an anomaly on a largely downbeat album marked indelibly by the death of Nas' mother. The specter of death, whether short and violent or long and lingering, gives a sense of urgency to God's Son, which largely abandons the gangsta fantasies of Nas' lesser records for a rich vein of autobiographical storytelling. On "Last Real Nigga Alive," he offers a secret history of New York rap beefs both high-profile and subliminal, while "I Can" unexpectedly channels Slick Rick's rakish storyteller persona to offer counsel to impressionable youths. Tupac Shakur made no secret of his disdain for Nas during his lifetime, but nevertheless pops up posthumously on "Thugz Mansion (N.Y.)." His verse about kicking it with the similarly deceased sounds like it could have been written while he was taking a piss, but there's something strangely poignant about Shakur and Nas' brand of gangsta sentimentality. Alas, not even Nas' charisma can save "Zone Out," an atrocious posse cut that showcases the weaknesses of Nas' Bravehearts crew. That track aside, God's Son is a worthy follow-up to Stillmatic, but The Lost Tapes is even better. Though essentially a collection of odds and ends, the disc sounds as cohesive and consistent as any of Nas' proper studio albums. From the hood sociology of "Doo Rags" to "Fetus," a bonus track in which he raps from the perspective of his prenatal self, Tapes is a filler-free tour de force. "Purple" and "Drunk By Myself" find him self-medicating with weed and alcohol, but an undercurrent of pain and desperation runs through Tapes that intoxication can blur but never erase. Dark and challenging, the collection confirms Nas' status as rap music's poet laureate of urban despair.