Photo by Daniel Hastings

NAS, THE 25-YEAR-OLD HYPERLYRICAL elder statesman of now-school hip-hop, celebrated the release of his third album, I Am . . ., three weeks ago at Float in midtown Manhattan. Downstairs, six saline-endowed dancers in leopard-print G-string bikinis writhed around to DJ Funkmaster Flex selections. Upstairs, beyond two sets of velvet-rope checkpoints, the beautiful people fought for elbow room to preen: Puffy, Russell Simmons, Hammer (!), Mobb Deep, Charli Baltimore, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah. Complimentary Johnnie Walker whiskey flowed from the bar until 2 in the morning, and smoking a fat-ass blunt in the center of this bacchanalia stood Nas himself. “You can hate me now,” Puff allows on Nas' latest single. Thanks for the permission.

If you handed in I Am as a high school English-class essay, your teacher might write “Dig deeper” in big red letters across the top of the page. Nas' transcript goes something like this: His debut, Illmatic, stunned hip-hop five years ago with scruffy beats and a gritty sonic landscape draped behind intricate rhyme schemes that recalled microphone legend Rakim. (This during a time when California MCs — Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg — ruled the charts and boosted the rap Zeitgeist with G-funk.) The 1996 follow-up, It Was Written, sold four times as much but was plagued by howls of “sellout.” Nas had traded his coarse street production for the glossier, flossier backdrops of studio slicksters like the Track Masters, with dollar signs in his sleepy eyes.

So the spin on I Am is that Nas has returned to his illmatic roots. The first track on the album is “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II,” which harks back to the “N.Y. State of Mind” that kicked off Illmatic — both produced exquisitely by DJ Premier. Nas recently returned to MTV in a sweatshirt hoodie, fraternizing with his Queensbridge Projects buddies in the video to the likewise Preemo-produced “Nas Is Like.” But you can't go home again, and somewhere in his spirit Nas knows it, because the album finds the It Was Written gangsta MC (Nas Escobar) trying to coexist with the original savior of New York hip-hop (Nasty Nas).

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery, and by offering the aforementioned alms to the streets-based essence of hip-hop, Nas seems aware of his present plight. Listeners who take the culture seriously check Nas for stuff like “I Want To Talk to You,” where our hero addresses the mayor, governor, president, FBI, CIA and “mothafuckin' congressmen” as the voice of hip-hop: “Dissin' us, discriminating different races/Taxpayers pay for more jails for black and Latin faces”; “Niggas in high places, they don't have the balls for this/People in power sit back and watch them slaughter us”; “Mr. Governor, imagine it's your kids that starve/Imagine your kids gotta slang crack to survive . . .” “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II,” “I Want To Talk to You,” the graphic “Ghetto Prisoners” and the album's cover imagery (a Pharaoh mask cast in Nas' visage) all serve the Nas-as-Rakim-reincarnated pundits. Then things get murky, as commercial interests raise their conspicuous collective head.

Nas has rarely shared the microphone on his own albums, and when he has it's always been with family, like AZ and Foxy Brown of his Mafioso side-project group the Firm. He's so lyrically adept that his labyrinthine rhymes stand best alone. I Am hosts Houston's Scarface (“Favor for a Favor”), DMX (“Life Is What You Make It”) and Puff Daddy (“Hate Me Now”) in an obvious bid to draw in as many fan bases as possible. “Money Is My Bitch” has two things going against it, though it's actually a pretty solid song. For one, its clever metaphorical wordplay (“When we fuck, we use prophylactics/Hard plastic/Stick you in ATMs limited cash quick . . . I gave you backshots in your assets”) is a retread of It Was Written's “I Gave You Power,” where Nas uses the same simile trick to see through the vantage of a gun. The other problem is the Alvin West/Track Masters production, which relies on the same Times-Square-train-station steel drums that the Live Squad used to adorn It Was Written's “Silent Murder.”

LAST WEEK, PUFFY TURNED HIMSELF IN TO NEW YORK AUTHORIties for his participation in the alleged assault of Nas' manager, I Am's executive producer, Steve “The Commissioner” Stoute. The altercation centered around the inclusion of a scene in the video to “Hate Me Now,” with Puff on a crucifix mumbling, “I think I like this.” Stoute, battered and bruised, can take solace in I Am's No. 1 Billboard Top 200 position. But somebody should take the weight for encouraging Nas to tightrope the line between order and chaos, gangsterism and enlightenment. I Am is not a horrendous album. But Nas has now established a pattern of declining album quality, and that makes I Am . . . Nas' worst album. You can hate me now.

NAS | I Am . . . | (Columbia)

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