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*** Nas, "I Am," Columbia.

March 29, 1999|SOREN BAKER

Among the most hyped underground rap artists early in this decade, Nas surfaced in 1994 with a brilliant debut album, "Illmatic." Taking listeners on a vividly detailed journey through the world of New York's Queensbridge Housing Projects, the former Nasty Nas struck hard-core hip-hop followers with his engrossing tales of a youth trying to make sense of a painful existence.

In a bid for more commercial success, the New Yorker secured radio-friendly beats for 1996's "It Was Written." The move paid off to the tune of double platinum. Nas' lyrics remained street-oriented, but many longtime followers were skeptical about his musical evolution and his intensified embrace of gangster themes.

On "I Am . . . ," due in stores Tuesday, Nas returns to his lyrical roots, adroitly balancing hard-core subject matter with production that should easily find its way onto urban radio. At times furious but mostly calm and calculating, Nas is one of the few rappers who offers a legitimate lower-class perspective on the government's shortcomings. The level-headed conclusions he produces about the chaos surrounding him and other inner-city dwellers stands as a testament to his linguistic and artistic mastery.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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