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Despite hiphop’s apparent dearth of talent, the art still boasts a good group of legitimate MCs. Black Thought’s ill sense of rhyme scheme, Common’s original flow, and Talib Kweli’s mastery of punch lines all belie the scars on rap’s public face. Yet none of these artists have the ability to examine the world the way Nas did on his classic debut, Illmatic. When Illmatic was released, in 1994, rap was in the midst of its neo-golden age, with Biggie Smalls, the Roots, and Black Moon all crafting classics. But of all those hiphop treasures, Illmatic stood out like platinum in a gold mine.

Illmatic was a ringside view of young black male life in the wake of Reaganomics and the crack epidemic. “My window faces shoot-outs, drug overdoses,” rapped Nas. “Live amongst no roses, only the drama/For real, a nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja.” Illmatic was not a “positive” or “message” album in the manner of X-Clan or Public Enemy. Nas eschewed didactic proclamations, instead mixing vignettes of inner-city life with traditional braggadocio: “My intellect prevails, through a hangin’ cross with nails/I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real/Word to Christ, a disciple of streets, trifle on beats/I decipher prophecies through a mike and say peace.”

Bolstered by an all-star cast of producers, Nas painted a cityscape wherein a whole generation’s life expectancy was slashed in half. He portrayed the tragedy of a world where baseheads stood on the corner selling broken amps, and a Lotto ticket was considered a wise investment. As bleak as Nas’ worldview was, he managed to avoid the blatant glorification of violence. The difference between Nas’ vision and that of a fleet of cartoon-minded 40-guzzling MCs was that Illmatic was not a gangsta’s fairy tale; it was a place we all knew too well.

Using Nas’ life as microhistory, the album told the story of the crack generation, a group raised “beyond the walls of intelligence.” On “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park),” when Nas reflects on a friend’s murder over a sheepskin coat, something in you twitches because you had a friend who was killed over a sheepskin coat. Or maybe you wanted a sheepskin coat, but your mother knew that fashion in ’80s black America had become something—literally—to die for. You didn’t know the child assassin Nas was talking to on “One Love.” But maybe you had a little cousin, who at 14 already seemed as if he’d seen Scarface too many times.

Consequently, hopes for Nas’ 1996 follow-up, It Was Written, soared like a kite in a hurricane. Nas never could have lived up to the hype with his sophomore effort. But It Was Written didn’t even try, and it was a bitter disappointment. For starters, Nas traded in his all-star cast for the plastic beats of the Track Masters. Furthermore, Nas bought in to the pipe dream of playerism that began contaminating hiphop with the ascension of Puffy. Whereas on Illmatic Nas saw the world through gloomy, minimalist eyes, on It Was Written his vision blurred, and his work came off as superfluous and overblown.

But the album might have been forgivable had it not been followed up by the glitzy self-titled compilation, The Firm, a collaboration among Nas, Nature, AZ, and Foxy Brown. It, too, was a total disaster. Despite its platinum talent, the album produced only one hit (“Phone Tap”) and got no respect among serious critics. Both albums damaged Nas’ place in the history books. Everyone falls off—even the great Rakim never produced another classic album after Paid in Full. But Nas seemed as if he had accepted his decline—he just wanted to keep selling records. Heads began comparing Nas to Big Daddy Kane, writing him off as a one-classic wonder.

But great art dies hard in the mind of hiphop heads, and Illmatic stays in the heavy rotation of even the most vocal Nas-haters. He maintains validity in rapdom largely because everyone knows his capability. But in underground circles, he’s been placed on probation. Now comes Nas’ third solo release and it all comes down to this: Legions of hiphop fundamentalists are withholding their respect, and Nas has 16 tracks in which to win it all back. Make a legitimate attempt at a gutter album with sharp lyrics and crucial head-nod factor and all is forgiven. Try to fool rapdom with another placebo, and the vaunted reputation spawned by Illmatic takes another trip south.

For pure lyrical force, Nas’ third offering, I Am…, is masterful. Not since Nas’ cameo appearance on Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse” has Nas spit lines the way he does on I Am…. The album features masterful narratives (“Small World,” “Undying Love”), richly detailed sketches (“N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II”), and pure braggadocio (“Nas Is Like”). But in a quest to become the second Biggie Smalls, Nas repeatedly shoots himself in the foot by enlisting a bevy of whack producers and mediocre cameo artists.

Chief among the offenders are minor-league producers like Grease and Alvin West (who?). Nas also leans heavily on producer L.E.S., who crafted some classic cuts such as Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” and AZ’s “Sugar Hill.” But his production on I Am… sounds hollow. “I Want to Talk to You” falls woefully short of L.E.S.’s earlier work, and “K-I-SS-I-N-G” blatantly jacks R. Kelly’s “When a Woman’s Fed Up.” Worse still is West’s production on “Money Is My Bitch” and the No Limit imitation “Big Things.” The tragedy of it all is that preview copies of I Am… contain several good songs that are omitted from the commercially released version.

The Track Masters hold true to their hit-or-miss reputation on I Am…. “Dr. Knockboot” loops a syrupy bass line over an empty drum track. The cut doesn’t benefit from the shouting and cooing in the background or the tragicomedy of Nas, the original hardrock, attempting to offer a ghetto twist on Dr. Ruth—humorous but profoundly juvenile. In the more successful “We Will Survive,” Nas addresses the late rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur and even feathers in bits of Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It.”

But what saves I Am… from the ranks of the unlistenable are two divine tracks produced by reliable veteran DJ Premier. The first single, “Nas Is Like,” finds Premier enlisting a phat drum track and an eerie organ riff to provide Nas with the perfect soundscape to return to Illmatic-like form: “Street scriptures, for/lost souls/In the crossroads/To the corner thugs/Hustlin’ for cars that/cost dough/To the big dogs livin large/Takin’ it light/Pushin’ big toys/Gettin’ nice, enjoyin’/your life.”

Premier also produces the album’s best synthesis between beats and lyrics, “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II.” Besides EPMD, most rap artists who attempt remakes and sequels of classic cuts usually fall flat. But Premier, as he did with “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” and Jeru the Damaja’s “Me or the Papes,” repeatedly manages to challenge previous efforts with successful results. “N.Y State of Mind Pt. II” is no different. Premier is the master of dirty key riffs, and he samples one of the illest I can remember for the track.

But the cut belongs to Nas, who digs deep to bring you horrifying imagery from the last corner of America: “Broken glass in the hallway, blood-stained floors/Neighbors, look at every bag you bring through your doors/Lock the top lock, Mama shoulda cuffed me to the radiator/Why not, it mighta saved me later from my block [and] N.Y. cops.” Such moments on

I Am… effectively contradict reports of Nas’ lyrical demise; no lyricist in rap uses so little language to cover so much ground. Throughout the cut, Nas intricately describes victims of police brutality who “stare with dead eyes,” and describes how drugs, murder, and jail slowly pick off each member of his crew. Nas ends the cut asserting his will to survive: “A lot of niggas schemin’, some real and some niggas frontin’/But I’m a big dreamer so watch me come up with somethin’.” The line perfectly illustrates the irony of the situation, given that most people who inhabit the world Nas describes also think they’ll “come up with somethin’.” But reality usually begs to differ.CP