“I Am”, the autobiographical story that gets lost in its commercial intent
“The promise of an introspective return”
After Illmatic and It Was Written, Nas became a major player in the Hip Hop landscape of the second half of the 90s. Even before his debut album, the expectations of fans and Hip Hop players were high, Nas was to be the next Rakim. It’s easy to be disappointed when expectations are so high, yet Nas was the promise he was, especially in terms of writing. And he also managed to confirm with his second album in 1996.
Of course, the expectations were even higher when this third album was announced. Nas had planned to release a double introspective album, hence the title I Am… The Autobiography. The project was once again promising, Nas’ pen would have easily allowed him to shine in this exercise, especially at this stage of his career. We could have discovered the many facets of Nas’ personality from his own perspective, Nas, Nasir Jones, Nas Escobar, Nasty Nas and maybe even the beginnings of Nastradamus. Unfortunately, the album was leaked in 1998, suddenly forcing Nas to revise its content. The original content of the album is not known exactly, but some of the leaked tracks will be found on his next album released the same year, Nastradamus, and on the 2002 compilation The Lost Tapes, while some of them will simply be dropped. Some tracks will be kept on I Am…. Album which is not really an autobiography and which has lost the second half of its original title.
“A concept only partially exploited”
Leaks really plague the music, it is difficult to say whether the album would have been fundamentally different, especially in musicality. The problem with I Am… is that we have an introspective album start, but Nas doesn’t really follow through with his concept, it’s only very partially exploited. We have his vision of life on various subjects like politics, racism, religion or Hip Hop, but we don’t have much content on his life itself, his life, his feelings, his emotions, his desires, his fears, his anxieties, etc. Nas showed us that he could be the street reporter on Illmatic, what he could observe in the dark streets of Queens with lyrics that were raw, subtle and insightful. The emotional aspect is allmost gone, he’s not really on the streets of Queens anymore and it shows.
Fortunately, Nas’s writing skills remain intact, he hasn’t lost his pen and he still puts on some tracks his lyrics with a relevant and punchy pen, but on sometimes boring subjects. But the rapper from Queens was previously more raw, he is more honest here, especially about himself, Small World is a good example, but not enough for the project he undertakes. The album is sorely lacking in content and substance. I Am… is not as autobiographical as it claims to be and that’s a shame.
“A commercial desire that does not pay tribute to his lyrical talent”
The artistic direction undertaken on I Am… is undoubtedly the biggest flaw of the album. Nas loses himself in a commercial will that hardly pays tribute to his lyrical talent. Nas’ thoughts can be relevant, his political statements on I Want to Talk to You are interesting in the verses until we get to the chorus, which is simply ridiculous and without any depth. K-I-SS-I-N-G follows the same logic, a relevant introspection on the difficulties of life together but the chorus is once again uninteresting and very commercially oriented. We Will Survive is a nice sincere tribute to the two great departed of Hip Hop, 2pac and Notorious B.I.G, but what is the purpose of adding this raunchy chorus. On Money Is My Bitch, Nas loses himself in the relevant subject of consumerism by making it vulgar, we should expect more consistency from Nas. If I praise his qualities as a rapper, his qualities as a singer are far from being the most convincing. Hate Me Now is the apotheosis of this commercial will, on a dramatic production of the Trackmasters, Nas comes out rather well, once again until this chorus …
If a part of the album presents little interest musically or lyrically, Nas makes up for it more or less on other tracks. His ability to report allows him to shine as a rapper with very well written and poetic descriptive lyrics. He still knows how to tell compelling stories with clever rhymes about life and the ghetto, when he wants to, especially on Nas Is Like and N.Y. State of Mind, Pt.2, which are undeniably the best tracks on I Am…. Undying Love provokes real sensations with a bewitching self-portrait, the only truly introspective track on the album. On its side, Ghetto Prisonners undeniably makes you think about the reason of our existence and the interest of Hip Hop.
The production is partly done by his faithful, Tackmasters, L.E.S. and DJ Premier, added to some new collaborators, including Timbaland or Dave Grease. Overall melodramatic, the production gives a particular atmosphere, a slightly sad and dark side, but without real coherence taken as a whole. We find distinct identities between commercial singles with pop refrains and the street hardness of his debut. We finally find ourselves stuck in a hybrid model which is not convincing on the length.