We still have a few days to wait until Nas’ new album arrives in stores, stripped of its controversial intended title. There’s a very good chance you’ve already heard Untitled, though, thanks to last week’s widespread online leaks. Don’t worry — Nas has suggested he doesn’t even mind if we download it. (Why would he, after what happened to Lil Wayne’s heavily bootlegged album last month?) In fact, he called the experience of being leaked “so f—ing exciting.” I couldn’t agree more, so I hereby call a formal end to the heated pre-release phase of the debate surrounding Untitled. Let the equally heated post-release phase begin! (It’s also streaming now at, if you’re holding out for a legal listen.)

Nas put himself in a pretty fix at the very start of his career,dropping one of the bar-none greatest albums of all time in 1994. It’s proved an impossible standard to live up to, for Nas or (almost) anyone else. So is his new one another Illmatic? Ofcourse not. But it’s saying something that that’s even a real question being posed in the Web’s more fevered corners. Reason number one for that has to be Untitled‘s production. Nas’ biggest post-Illmatic pitfall has been his inconsistent beat selection, and he fights that demon off forgood here. From the avant minimalism of Jay Electronica’s “Queens Get theMoney” to the widescreen strings of DJ Toomp’s “N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slaveand the Master)” to the sparkling synths of Polow da Don’s “Hero,” there’s not a clunker in thebunch.

Nas’ rhymes themselves, meanwhile, have virtually always been superlative over the years — but he’s been plagued by an occasional lack of focus. That’s not an issue on Untitled, a passionate, in-depth exploration of his political conscience. “Sly Fox” moves from dissing Bill O’Reilly and Rupert Murdoch into an on-point critique of today’s mass media; “America” rails against the death penalty and institutional misogyny. I can’t remember the last time I heard an established commercial figure take on topics like that for an entire album. Turns out that provocative title wasn’t a tease or a stunt at all: He really follows through on those uncomfortable questions, more than I think even many of his fans quite expected.

So who else has been bumping Untitled? Nas may have believed that Hip Hop is Dead a couple years ago, but I’m finding it hard to imagine more resounding proof that it’s alive and kicking than this CD. In fact, I think Nas might have just put an early lock on my personal album of the year race. How about you?