Popular rap fan consensus states that Nas’ late ‘90s were his worst period artistically speaking, and in retrospect it’s probably because he overextended himself. After the Firm album tanked, Nas took his career in a million directions at once, linking up with DMX and T-Boz from TLC for Hype Williams’ big screen debut Belly, starting up a vanity label in Ill Will Records and embarking on an ambitious double album project called I Am… The Autobiography. Like Illmatic before it, Nas’ sessions fell victim to prerelease bootleggers, but rather than dropping compromised music again, he recorded new songs and released the radically restructured single album I Am… on April 6th 1999. Months later Columbia hinted at a plan to release Nas’ outtakes, and again he rushed to the studio to cook up fresh material, coming away with late 1999’s much-maligned Nastradamus.
Two things have always bothered me about the middling reception of I Am… and Nastradamus. First, The Source reviewed a version of Nas’ I Am… album in 1999, awarding it a near-perfect 4.5 mic score. This is more than a little incongruous with the version of the album that made it to stores, which was hampered by a grip of subpar song concepts and iffy beats.
Second: I had a neighborhood bodega that sold bootleg albums and mixtapes in the late ’90s and early ’00s where I’d splurge on whatever rap albums I was cagey about buying at retail. I picked up a copy of I Am… there sometime before the street date and was shocked in April when the retail version surfaced with many of my favorite cuts replaced. Then in November when Nastradamus dropped and the only cuts revived off the bootleg were “Project Window” and “Come Get Me”. Then again in 2002 when The Lost Tapes resurrected “Blaze a 50”, “Drunk By Myself” and a few other cuts from the I Am… sessions. The real get for this piece would’ve been me producing a copy of that CD, but blue bottom CD-Rs weren’t built to last. Shit is gone.
The consolation prize is that in going through Nas’ ‘97 - ‘99 discography last month I found not only a formidably solid two albums worth of songs (I know this has been done a thousand times over the years, hear me out) but in working out a sequence for my personal listening enjoyment, I ended up piecing together an arrangement of I Am… era singles, deep cuts, soundtrack/compilation loosies and still unreleased outtakes that honors both the format and intent of I Am… The Autobiography. I found a concept album. The first disc takes Nas from birth to fame in the rap game to loss as the East/West rap feud started claiming greats. The second disc gets a little fictional as Nas the power-mad kingpin carries out a series of increasingly sloppy hits and capers that lead to his eventual undoing (and maybe mythological rebirth?)
It’s a rap game Scarface story and a spiritual successor to Big’s Life After Death. I swear if Nas released anything resembling this tracklist we’d be talking about that part of his career a lot differently. There’s a couple of dope cuts that didn’t fit the playlist tonally or else thematically (“Shoot Em Up”, “Small World”, “The Rise and Fall”, “You Won’t See Me Tonight”, and fuck you, I like “You Owe Me” too) but there’s also no weak links. Mixcloud audio and tracklist below.
I Am… The Autobiography - Part 1 by Craigsj on Mixcloud
00:00 - 03:18 Fetus
03:19 - 07:07 Poppa Was a Playa
“Fetus” is one of the great autobiographical Nas story songs, and it vexes me that it only saw the light of day as a hidden track on The Lost Tapes. He takes us from his conception to birth, detailing his parents’ squabbles through his “belly button window”. Lost Tapes closer “Poppa Was a Playa”, ghost produced by Kanye as legend has it, sees the union of a young Nas’ parents reach a breaking point as Olu’s philandering slowly tears the family apart.
07:08 - 10:26 U Gotta Love It
The opening line of this Lost Tapes loosie never ceases to slay me (“Real conversation for that ass!”) but between L.E.S.’ massive 6/4 production and Nas’ tight rhymes, fuck it, you gotta love it. Verse one reminisces about gazing at Playboy magazines before fooling around with neighborhood girls and then laments the mid-’80s crack epidemic’s transformation of innocent boys into grizzled street soldiers.
10:27 - 14:02 N.Y. State of Mind Part II
Nas reunited with DJ Premier for a remake of the Illmatic classic to open I Am…. QB’s still ravaged by poverty, drugs and police brutality here as Nas details the succession of deaths, arrests and betrayal that whittled his circle of close friends down from eight to three.
14:03 - 18:03 Nastradamus
Idc idc idc L.E.S. killed it. I don’t care if Nas was dancing inside a solar eclipse and rocking wolf pelts at the club in the video, I don’t care if you were supposed to watch the video with 3D glasses, I don’t care how smart/dumb of a title “Nastradamus” is, I don’t care if he said “I let y’all niggas bang my shit before Saddam hits”, I rocks with this. Nas uses the slick-to-death Nastradamus title track to remind us of all the shit he originated and open up about the death of his friend Ill Will. He also bucks on Memph Bleek something crazy at the top of verse one talking about hot slugs melting in dude’s hat. Damn, Nas.
18:04 - 22:09 Come Get Me
Premo killed it, Nasir killed it, there’s no reason this Nastradamus banger shouldn’t’ve have been a single. So it goes. “Come Get Me” is Nas on top arrogantly baiting enemies, and yes, that means more subs for Bleek and them. You can tell it was a leftover for the original sessions cause Nas threatens to “wild on haters on album three” even though the song appeared on album number four.
22:10 - 25:49 Find Ya Wealth
This shit was way too good for that messy QB’s Finest comp. Nas serves up the story of his success from his debut on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ” through the beginnings of his solo career over a smooth sample chop of shimmering keys from L.E.S. “Find Ya Wealth” inspires listeners to look for emotional/spiritual stability rather than wilding for respect and money.
25:50 - 30:10 Did You Ever Think (Remix) (feat. R. Kelly)
Hear me out! “Did You Ever Think” off R. Kelly’s 1998 R. album was dope, and this remix of it deserved better. It’s as much a Nas song as a Kells song, with the two of them taking a verse apiece in between choruses. It’s your typical incredulous rapper celebrates riches joint but this swanky Trackmasters collab is textbook Commercial Nas, and the message fits the story nicely, so it stays.
30:11 - 35:10 We Will Survive
Trackmasters had me at hello with this flip of Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It”, a personal yacht rock fave. But Nas takes this over the top with personal letters to Biggie and 2pac, tracing his relationship with each from friendly competition to shock and disbelief in the wake of their passing.
35:11 - 40:06 Project Window (feat. Ronald Isley)
Knowledge darts, moody feels, Ron Isley on the hook, this was a Nastradamus highlight. Nas recounts neighborhood shootouts and shakedowns he witnessed from the window of his mom’s apartment. Jay would later turn the sentiment into a dig on “Takeover”.
40:07 - 45:03 Sometimes I Wonder (feat. Nature)
This Nas/Nature cut slid out on an unofficial mixtape somewhere and it’s the perfect bridge from the depression and uncertainty of “We Will Survive” and “Project Window” to the bloodbath that’s to come.
I Am… The Autobiography - Part 2 by Craigsj on Mixcloud
00:00 - 04:43 Hate Me Now (feat. Puff Daddy)
04:44 - 08:47 Life Is What You Make It (feat. DMX)
08:48 - 12:55 Favor for a Favor (feat. Scarface)
The three big rapper collabs on I Am… are a good way to open the story disc 2 is trying to tell. “Hate Me Now” is self-absorbed king shit, “Life Is What You Make It” taps Nas’ Belly costar DMX for stressed fatalism and “Favor for a Favor” is Nas and Scarface teaming up for gleeful bloodletting. The beats on all three are hyperdramatic big screen courtroom drama shit, all strings and suspense, and it’s kinda heavy hearing them all in a row.
12:56 - 15:44 Blaze a 50
“Blaze a 50” is an ace story rap. Nas meets a football player’s wife at a Superbowl party and finds out he’s not treating her right. She hatches a disconcertingly fully formed plan to off the husband and make off with his insurance money. Nas flips on the wife and splits the money with the maid the husband’s fucking when he moves in for the kill. The maid pretends to be the wife, collects the money, then dies when Nas swaps out her coke with crushed up glass. How this missed both I Am… and Nastradamus is a mystery.
15:45 - 19:54 Life We Chose
19:55 - 24:02 My Worst Enemy
24:03 - 28:06 Drunk By Myself
28:07 - 31:49 The Hardest Thing to Do Is Stay Alive
“Life We Chose” (Nastradamus’ crown jewel for my money) is determination shot through with sadness, one of the game’s preeminent players lamenting the fact that yes, everybody dies at the end. The unreleased “My Worst Enemy” and Lost Tapes’ “Drunk By Myself” see a reckless, unstable Nas inching toward his own undoing. “The Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive” is a cautionary tale of dealers and dope fiends meeting their demises on opposing sides of the drug game.
31:50 - 35:24 Wanna Play (Rough)?
35:25 - 39:06 In Too Deep (feat. Nature)
“Wanna Play (Rough)?” is one of the best songs to come out of these sessions, and it is complete balderdash for it to have ended up on a release as forgotten and unheralded as Dame Grease’s Live on Lenox. Grease provides a death march of a beat here, and Nas plays the part of a wronged assassin exacting all-consuming revenge on his adversaries. “In Too Deep” off the soundtrack of the LL Cool J movie of the same name (where Nas plays a bit part) is fearful and paranoid, and situating it right after the murderous rage of “Wanna Play (Rough)?” and the stressed out reflection of the songs before it gives the impression of our protagonist quietly awaiting repercussions for his transgressions.
39:07 - 43:29 Undying Love
Death finally catches up with the kid on I Am… closer “Undying Love” when he comes home from a weekend excursion on the Vegas strip to find his girlfriend laid up with another dude. Listening to H-Town! Nas goes to kill the guy, who turns out to be an undercover cop, but somehow shoots his girl dead in the process. The pain’s too much for him to take, so he slides the engagement ring he was carrying onto her hand and takes his own life. Married in death. Police reinforcements walk in to find everybody dead, aaaand scene. Rap game Romeo & Juliet. What’s more disturbing is that rumors posit that Nas knew his real life significant other was cheating on him at the time of recording (as Jay’s off sides jabs would bear out very publicly in 2 years), so that technically makes this a bloody revenge fantasy, no?
43:30 - 47:26 Afterlife/Amongst Kings
“Afterlife” was supposed to provide closure to the story “Undying Love” abruptly ends, as Nas pleads for another shot at life after committing suicide. Unreleased stunner “Amongst Kings” puts a damper on that party as Nas meets his maker in judgement, and (here’s where things get odd) may or may not return to earth as an avenging angel? It’s weird that “Undying Love” would turn up without the epilogue because it ties together the I Am… and Nastradamus concepts rather neatly. But all that murky metaphysical shit might’ve been too heavy coming right after all the blood and mayhem of “Undying Love”. Which is why it’s my second to last track here…
47:27 - 51:24 Nas Is Like
With the proper story wrapped, I Am… single “Nas Is Like” as the final cut plays out how Kendrick ending good kid, m.A.A.d city with “Compton” did, chasing a dark, involved story cycle with an uplifting statement of purpose. “Nas Is Like” always felt like a proper album closer to me, and because I don’t have the bootleg on hand I can’t say whether or not its thanks to the song’s sequencing in that tracklist.