How Classic Is Nas' I Am? | Album Review

nas iam 1999.jpg

CLASSIC RATING: 4 OUT OF 6

Nas' I am was released on the 6th of April, 1999 and is his third album. I Am starts off with an intro track featuring a sample from a horror movie called The Amityville Horror of some children singing in a ghostly fashion which pretty creepy, then it transitions into a quick mix of some of Nas' best songs from his first two albums, then transitions into the first original beat of the album which features Jungle talking and talking for a little over a minute, which fine as an album intro and fairly entertaining and the beat is banging. After the intro is over it's time for the first song 'N.Y. State of Mind, Pt. II' which is produced by DJ Premier. The track begins with the beat from NYSOM Pt I then transitions into a murky piano loop which is spliced with Preemo's distinguished aesthetics. Nas sums up the state of the rotten apple between verses when he humorously announces:

You heard about it, you see about it, you read about it
It's in your papers. It's in your daily news, New York chronicles, every day, the crime rate, the murder rate, the money rate, the paper chase
You know what I mean? New York state of mind, baby!

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'Hate Me Now' produced by the Trackmasters is an amazing song, which is cinematic and has a string part that sounds like it's being played by a string quartet in the middle of a thunderstorm with lightning striking the dirt on the ground leaving the earth scorched. Diddy's vocals are both chilled and just stating a matter of fact that 'You can hate me now, but I won't stop now, 'cause I can't stop now, you can hate now', while the underlying rage comes out when he screams with a distortion effect on his voice:

Well, you hate me, I'm gon' hate you too
It's as simple as that
Die motherfucker, die motherfucker, die!
You don't give a fuck, I don't give a fuck
Go down any way you want it to go down
Weak, jealous motherfuckers! Fuck y'all!

Everything about 'Hate Me Now' is sublime from the dirty bassline to the stabbing strings, to the vocal delivery and subject matter, and one of the best choruses ever in hip-hop. After that stunning track, Nas does some excellent storytelling on 'Small World' which is similar to some of Biggie's work on Life After Death. The production is good and features a good amount of melody. Next Nas hooks up with Houston legend Scarface on 'Favor for a Favor' promising each other 'You wet who I want wetted, I wet who you want wetted'. Musically it has that real gangsta sound from 'Faces solo work and would've sounded at home on his excellent 'The Last of a Dying Breed' album.

On the chilled out Trackmasters produced 'We Will Survive', which is reminiscent of One Love with its lush layers of xylophone and sexy bassline, Nas takes a timeout to dedicate his pen to a couple of legends of hip-hop in heaven, namely Tupac and Biggie. Nas does a nice job of incorporating references to albums and songs from those fallen heroes into his verses which is a nice touch and a worthy way to reminisce and honor the deceased by proclaiming that 'we will survive'. The next track 'Ghetto Prisoners' is musically mundane and lacks a decent chorus. After that track, Nas has another dearly departed guest in the form of Aaliyah who contributes her vocals to 'You Won't See Me Tonight'. The beat is provided by legendary producer Timbaland and is a good example of the sound that was prevalent on the R&B charts around '99 and is a nice addition to the album and brings back nostalgia for listeners of this era of music. On 'I Want To Talk to You' Nas delves deep into governmental corruption while on 'Dr. Knockboot' he lays out his pimp rules, ala The Notorious B.I.G's 'Ten Crack Commandments', over a funky Trackmasters beat. 

 Artwork from Nas' I Am CD booklet

Artwork from Nas' I Am CD booklet

The legendary dog, DMX makes a guest appearance on 'Life's What You Make It' which is a track that suits his ruff and gruff style well while it's still compatible with Nas' more chilled-out flow. 'LIWYMI' is another good track and one of several quality tracks provided by L.E.S. who is one of Nas' staple producers. On 'Big Things', Nas applies a rapid-fire southern rap flow as he describes how he has moved on to big boy toys and schemes. The instrumentation is pleasant and has percussion work that is somewhat comparable to the modern trap music. The track ebbs and flows beautifully with keyboard strings and flutes reminiscent of a ghetto fantasy while Nas raps effortlessly in this new and innovative style. 

Now it's time for one of the most classic songs in Nas' canon of work, namely 'Nas Is Like', produced by the legendary Gang Starr producer, DJ Premier. On Nas' previous album, It Was Written, Preemo sort of fell a bit short, but more than makes up for that on this stunning track. Commencing with a sample of chirping birds that flow and then fluctuate with a staccato make this track instantly recognizable for its originality alone. And that's only the first 20 seconds...now in comes the beautiful strings that are layered and create a dreamlike soundscape for Nas' ghetto visions and lyrics that explore his legacy in the rap game. 

Nas Is Like, life or death, I'm a rebel,
my poetry's deep, I never fell
Nas Is Like, half man, half amazing
No doubt!

 More artwork from Nas' I Am CD booklet

More artwork from Nas' I Am CD booklet

On 'K-I-S-S-I-N-G' Nas talks about a girl he's in or wants to be in a relationship with and adds to the well-known children's lyric by including an adult version singing F-U-C-K-I-N-G on the chorus. Next Nas does another song in the vein of 'I Gave You Power' from his previous album, but instead of a gun this song's object is money and Nas writes an interesting song on 'Money Is My Bitch' over yet another quality Trackmasters production. The last track on the album is 'Undying Love' which a storytelling track in the style of Biggie's Life After Death album. It's a somber way to end the album and is not a song that is especially replayable for its musical merits, but it's certainly quite a detailed short story in the street crime genre. 

Overall this is a solid album with several songs that are very popular even today although this is the album when people started to see a downward curve in terms of the overall quality of Nas' albums. Whereas 'It Was Written' was different and certainly more commercial than 'Illmatic', I Am was clearly a less consistent and enjoyable album although it still has its merits such as an increased emphasis on storytelling as some tracks are very cinematic both musically and lyrically. And there's also an increase in dance & party oriented material which was virtually non-existent on his two previous albums. Other than that it's nice to see DJ Premier contribute such a memorable track this time around with 'Nas Is Like' and Puff Daddy's guest spot on 'Hate Me Now' was a nice addition. Putting the album into the context of that particular time in hip-hop and the fact that Biggie was murdered only two years prior it was natural that Nas would be eyeing the number one spot in New York (and the rap game at large), but certainly NYC, and he did take a shot at Jay-Z on 'We Will Survive' which likely was the spark that began the Jay-Z vs Nas feud. You can hear it in Nas' choice of production that he wanted the top dog position and you can hear that he's stylistically borrowing from both 2Pac's Makaveli album and Biggie's Life After Death. Of course Nas' I Am doesn't measure up to those iconic releases but he still does a good enough job to keep him in contention for that top spot.

 The back cover of Nas' I Am album showing the tracklist

The back cover of Nas' I Am album showing the tracklist

How Classic Is Nas' I Am Album?

CLASSIC: N.Y. State of Mind Pt II, Hate Me Now, Nas Is Like, | GREAT: Favor For A Favor, You Won't See Me Tonight OKAY: Small World, Favor for a Favor, We Will Survive, Dr. Knockboot, Life Is What You Make It, Big Things, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, Money Is My Bitch, Undying Love OKAY: Ghetto Prisoners, I Want To Talk To You
Alexander Ramalho