Too Real?

In 1997, Nas joined Foxy Brown, Nature and AZ to form the Firm.

"Real" is the highest compliment Nas has for himself, and the highest

compliment heavy-duty hip-hop heads give him for his straight-talking,

relentlessly grim stories of death and despair in the projects. I Am

..., his third album (not counting the someone-told-us-we're-a-crew

collaboration The Firm), is unremittingly "real," and he repeats

the word again and again. But since when is realness the best aim of

art, or of hip-hop in particular? Even at their hardest, the great MCs

are the Picassos and Dalis, not the Norman Rockwells: they're the ones

who invent their own reality or come up with a new way of responding to

the one around them, rather than just reproducing the quotidian. Think

of the way N.W.A. blew up their rage and paranoia into something much

bigger and stranger than life, or how the Wu-Tang Clan loop language in

on itself inside their labyrinth of masks. But the biggest departure

from literalism here is the lyric sheet, which was obviously

transcribed in a hurry. ("Started robbin' niggas till he caught a whole

kilo" comes out on the page as "started rubbin' niggas till he caught a

white kid.")

So "real": What is that? Nas Escobar and his extra persona Nasty Nas

aren't really Nasir Jones, the guy who gets the writing credit (though

he splits it 15 ways on "Nas Is Like," which has to be some kind of

record), and God knows they don't have to be. I Am ... uses

"realness" as an excuse for celebrity gestures ("We Will Survive," a

eulogy for Tupac and Biggie, feels a little pro forma and

unforgivably samples Kenny Loggins); for willful wrongheadedness

("Ghetto Prisoners" proposes "this chronic herb" as a way to transcend

poverty); for glib, violent fantasies like "Favor For A Favor" that are

more tedious than shocking on a record in 1999. (Yes, the real-world

reality Nas is talking about can be numbingly, relentlessly brutal, but

the way to communicate that in meaningful art is not to duplicate its

relentless numbness.) Too much of the album is derivative, of both Nas'

own work ("N.Y. State Of Mind Pt. II" is as lame as any other hip-hop

sequel) and others' ("Big Things"' title is yay-close to "Bone Thugs"

for a reason). And its reality is ephemeral: the tray card advertises

the Oct. 26 release date for the next Nas album.

Despite all this, Nas is a real MC in the best sense. He'll toss off

rhymes and half-rhymes and slant rhymes on the same sound like he's

dealing off a deck, then impulsively flip to the next string of rhymes

when you least expect it. It's worth listening to him flow at length,

too: "Money Is My Bitch" is a cringe-worthy title, but it turns out to

be a fluid, extended play on a too-familiar trope; and the single "Nas

Is Like" lets fly more apropos similes than Cole Porter's "You're The

Top" had metaphors. When he's willing to let the no-sell-out pose slip

a little and move past the bombastic minor-key loops that take up most

of the album, he can have a blast. He's taken some flack from the hip-

hop press for employing the Trackmasters, the folks behind Will Smith's

album, but their contribution "I Want To Talk To You" is the most

musically interesting thing here, a minimal bounce enlivened with a

synth chime that sounds like steel percussion. Nas' lyrics for the song

are still raw as anyone could ask, but the contrast in tone lets his

words cut deeper -- just the kind of reality check he needs.