“Real” is the highest compliment Nas has for himself, and the highest compliment heavy-duty hip-hop heads give him for his straight-talking, relentlessly grim stories of death and despair in the projects. I Am…, his third album, is unremittingly “real,” and he repeats the word again and again. But since when is realness the best aim of art, or of hip-hop in particular? Even at their hardest, the great MCs are the Picassos and Dalis, not the Norman Rockwells: they’re the ones who invent their own reality or come up with a new way of responding to the one around them, rather than just reproducing the quotidian.

So “real”: What is that? I Am … uses “realness” as an excuse for celebrity gestures (“We Will Survive,” a eulogy for Tupac and Biggie, feels a little pro forma and unforgivably samples Kenny Loggins); and for willful wrongheadedness (“Ghetto Prisoners” proposes “this chronic herb” as a way to transcend poverty). Despite all this, Nas is a real MC in the best sense. He’ll toss off rhymes and half-rhymes and slant rhymes on the same sound like he’s dealing off a deck, then impulsively flip to the next string of rhymes when you least expect it.

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When he’s willing to let the no-sell-out pose slip a little and move past the bombastic minor-key loops that take up most of the album, he can have a blast. He’s taken some flack from the hip- hop press for employing the Trackmasters, the folks behind Will Smith’s album, but their contribution “I Want To Talk To You” is the most musically interesting thing here, a minimal bounce enlivened with a synth chime that sounds like steel percussion. Nas’ lyrics for the song are still raw as anyone could ask, but the contrast in tone lets his words cut deeper – just the kind of reality check he needs.