I’m at the Gambling spot/My hands on a knot/New York Yankees cap cover my eyes/Stand in one spot/ I take a nigga’s dough/Send him home to his shoe box/You lost that, nigga/I’ll put your dollar in a jukebox, Nas raps on “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II.” Since his much-heralded arrival, in 1994, Nasir Jones has raised the stakes for urban elocutionists with mood-setting lines like this scenario of a cool criminal scheming on a vic. But within these glam-meets-ghetto days of hip-hop, the best MCs are those who can pass off their tragic dichotomies as cool: Rage against the machine and subscribe to the Robb Report; fuck the world but respect her in the morning. “Dime’s givin’ fellatio/Siete zeros/Bet my nine spit for the pesos/But what’s it all worth?/Can’t take it with you under this earth/Rich men died and tried/But none of it worked/They just rob your grave/I’d rather be alive and paid,” he observes on “Nas Is Like,” from I Am . . ., his third disc, jumping from the virtues of getting head, seven-figure lifestyles and busting guns to existentialism and back again, all in seconds. By comparison, it usually takes KRS-One at least two songs to refute himself so thoroughly.
Despite his years in the game, Nas is still a diamond in the rough — perhaps the rawest lyrical talent of his day but lacking the guidance and vision to create a complete album. He’s at his best on “Small World” and “Undying Love”: Sedative strings and twinkling keys back up winding narratives ripe with Shakespearean calamity. When biting song templates from the late Notorious B.I.G. — the Puffy-assisted tirade “Hate Me Now,” the sex manual “Dr. Knockboot” — he’s full of danceable, grooving entertainment, but the sentimental “We Will Survive” is a mediocre elegy to the souls of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. When Timbaland and Aaliyah pop up on the thumping “You Won’t See Me Tonight,” Nas makes double infidelity sound like something to strive for; but “K-I-SS-I-N-G,” an eloquent tale of courtship and the difficulties of married life, is bogged down by a hook as corny as Mike and Carol Brady. Similarly, his quixotic attempts at social activism, “I Want to Talk to You” and “Ghetto Prisoners,” sound hokey. When he sings “I wanna talk to the mayor/To the governor/To the motherfuckin’ president/I wanna talk to the FBI/And the CIA/And the motherfuckin’ congressmen,” you figure that if singing this bad can’t get them to stop their ills, nothing will. But what I Am . . . lacks in content, it makes up for in lyrical acumen; the album doesn’t deliver the introspection its title implies, but it compensates for it in storytelling and craftsmanship. I Am . . . offers tantalizing hints of promise tethered by a need for pop acceptance — in a way it is what Nas is, warts and all.