Some artists you're supposed to hear. Others are to be felt. Nas falls into the latter category.
Nas' 1995 debut, Illmatic, earned such critical acclaim that he was knighted one of hip hop's greatest emcees. He was canonized and charged with the responsibility of resurrecting East Coast hip hop. His label gave up creative control of the second album, that Saint Nas' will be done. It was good, but disappointingly materialistic and self-righteous. While displaying flashes of brilliance, Nas grounded himself in ego.
The reason for the history? Nas' third effort, I Am … , has been highly anticipated. He has proclaimed a return to the streets. Fans are excited. But here's a thought: Felons return to the street. Nas is a sage, and sages maintain wise and experienced perspectives of their environment. Sages offer thoughts that shape the mentality of people from similar backgrounds and educate outsiders seeking understanding. Nas has a responsibility to do more than return.
Tracks like "We Will Survive" lend the most personal and touching testimony any rapper has offered to the late Notorious B.I.G. and the late Tupac Shakur ("2Pacalypse. I understand ya style, nigga."). Nas redeems himself of unworthy materialistic meandering by attempting "to talk to the mayor, to the governor, to the muthaphukkin' president. I wanna talk to the FBI, and the CIA, and the muthaphukkin' congressmen."
What keeps I Am … from achieving a level of authenticity comparable to the bliss of Illmatic is Nas' lingering urge to fondle fads. "Big Things" is a wack exercise in the Midwestern slow-beat-fast-rap style. And sampling R. Kelly's "When a Woman's Fed Up" on "K-I-S-S-I-N-G," while the crooner's song is still on the charts, is a buck-toothed bite.
I Am … falls somewhere between the first and second albums. Worth the buy, but keep the fast-forward button cocked.