The press materials for i am…, Nas' long-awaited follow-up to It Was Written, unironically refers to the artist formerly known as Nas Escobar as "a hip-hop Nietzsche." And though both men were bedeviled by player-haters throughout their careers, and both later saw their philosophical teachings twisted and used to promote the genocidal practices of the National Socialist Party, a better comparison for Nas might be MC-of-the-moment Jay-Z. Both are rap superstars who grew up in the projects of New York City, both have high-profile gigs as hip-hop ghostwriters, and both play similarly paradoxical roles in the hip-hop hierarchy as future gangsta-rap philosopher-martyrs a la 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. Like Jay-Z's In My Lifetime Vol. 2, Nas' new third album is a commercially savvy tour of rap's trends du jour, with a Puffy-assisted "Victory"-style gothic rap ("Hate Me Now"), a DMX collaboration ("Life Is What You Make It"), several obligatory sex songs ("Dr. Knockboots," "K-I-S-S-I-N-G"), and Timbaland's future-funk production (the Aaliyah duet "You Won't See Me Tonight"). Puffy-sized tackiness abounds, from the wholesale appropriation of the weeks-old R. Kelly single "When A Woman's Fed Up" on "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" to the rinky-dink keyboards on the misguided political rant "I Want To Tell You," to the Kenny Loggins-powered über-cheesy 2Pac and B.I.G. tribute "We Will Survive." Still, when Nas gets back to the basics, as on the two best tracks—the chest-beating single, "Nas Is Like," and "New York State Of Mind (Part Two)"—the results are remarkable. Moments of brilliance are scattered throughout, in the vivid imagery and deft lyricism of "Small World," "Favor For A Favor," and the album-ending hip-hop murder ballad "Undying Love." On "Nas Is Like," Nas boasts that he's "half-man, half-amazing." And while i am… isn't quite half-amazing, it's a flawed but worthwhile disc that shows both how far he's come and how much room for improvement remains.
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