Hip hop has busted pop music open so wide in the past year or two that for everyone but a diminishing minority of aging and/or oddball fans, finding extraordinary casual pleasure in it has become almost a routine. Maybe that’s why it took me a few moments one evening last fall to recognize Nas thumping out of the sound system at a Cleveland nightclub where I was standing around grooving to the rhythm, waiting to see thirtysomething alt-rockers the Afghan Whigs. Lead Whig Greg Dulli was at one time something of an oddity among his provincial white peers for loving urban black music, but now his preshow tape had white folks’ heads bobbing as Nas’s prototypical hardcore beats—spare, straightforward, slightly menacing—rolled out behind Nas’s prototypical hardcore flow—pumping, urgent, but always tempered by his exacting tempo. The pleasant jolt of recognition was redoubled because I hadn’t listened to either of Nas’s albums in years for what I thought was a good reason: back in the day (like, 1994 and ’96—eons ago when the hip-hop time clock is wound tight), they both seemed to fall short of the critical hype and their own aural promise. Yet in the club, the music sounded as fresh as any disc released today, hip hop’s dopest moment in a decade.
Of course, any familiar sound heard in a packed room has some kind of benign effect. Blasted out of someone else’s system, I’ve even enjoyed that wellspring of hip hop’s dumbest moments of the decade, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Back in the dank G-funk era when Dre’s influence ruled the roost, it was by and large Nas’s failure to fulfill his potential role as a counterforce to all those smoove-groove pimp and gangsta fantasies that made him a disappointment to me. I mostly accepted the general complaint that, whereas the rumbling underground New York style of his debut, Illmatic, showed wide-ranging lyrical and deep-rooted musical potential, his bicoastal, Mafia-frontin’ follow-up, It Was Written, was a compromise in every respect—it even boasted a collaboration with Dre at his bloated, Steven Seagall-ian worst. But even then the complaint seemed to give Nas too much credit and too little at once. Now I know why.
The tip-off wasn’t the Whigs’s club tape but the time I’ve been spending with Nas’s third album and first solo disc in three years, I Am… Taken with his other albums, it shows that Nasir Jones’s most salient talent is finding and exploiting the middle ground, maybe even partly inventing it. His old records have lasted not only because he rediscovered hard rap’s bedrock basics on Illmatic and synthesized hooks of tough, durable plastic on It Was Written, but because of his prescience that hip-hop’s health is dependent on meeting everything halfway: the thugs and gangstas, urban radio, keep-it-real aesthetes, even aging, oddball, conscience-ridden white pop fans like me and my Ohio homie, Greg Dulli. As is often the case in life, this trick is nothing new: sociologists call it passing; linguists, code switching; black people, surviving.
Halfway means just that: no way this new disc delivers everything that all of us could want. The general complaint will be that the 25-year-old rapper actually fails to catch up to the hip-hop moment, especially in the way he regurgitates stupid hardcore cuds from the opening “fuck all y’all faggot muthafuckas” to the closing tall tale of murder and suicide in a minor key. In between, there are too many pompous tinkling keyboards and synth washes making like symphony string sections (or maybe they are symphony string sections—what do I know?). It’s not a good sign that I Am…‘s most arresting moment early on is a clichéd collage of old songs—a recap like the Whigs’s preshow tape. After that, “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II” delivers a fine follow-up to Illmatic‘s classic cut, but things quickly disintegrate with Puff Daddy’s pseudo-Wagnerian cameo track, “Hate Me Now” (haven’t they heard Black Star’s “Hater Players?”), followed by the lowest low point, “Favor for a Favor,” where Nas and Scarface proclaim that the essence of brotherliness is “whetting” other brothers (I mean “niggas,” right?).
But then he rises up and reaches out, first hitting a Biggie/Tupac tribute as tender and earnestly confused as “I’ll Be Missing You” (and keyed, of all things, to a George Michael vocal hook), then a Timbaland-produced war-of-the-sexes where he demonstrates real self-knowledge about the relations between macho men and their long-suffering women, then “Dr. Knockboot,” a funky/silly sex-advice throwaway, and so on—from a love’n’lust number keyed to a childhood nursery rhyme to a superstar boast keyed to the “Theme From Mahogany.” The capper, though, is the current single “Nas Is Like,” where he rides a four-note synth ostinato and background harp arpeggios, roaming across his career with a mix of humility and bravado that earns Nas his repeated, clipped background tag: “half a man, half a-mazing.” Guess sometimes halfway means all the way.