I am...

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April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Conventional wisdom holds that rap is for the young. Sure, older listeners might purchase the occasional Grammy-sanctioned Will Smith or Lauryn Hill CD, but for the most part, thirty- and fortysomethings shun the hardcore stuff, convinced that all that tough talk about guns, drugs, and sex has nothing to do with their lives.

That loss of income must irk business-savvy rappers, for whom ”getting paid,” often and copiously, is a guiding principle. Maybe what’s needed is a change of context, something to convince middle-class music fans that hip-hop is the important cultural force its supporters believe it to be. A musical extravaganza — a bona fide hip-hopera — might be just the ticket, and I Am…, the third album from New York rapper Nas (due April 6), is as ripe for the stage as, say, Elton John’s Disney-backed Aida (although you’ll probably see Mickey Does Dallas before a rap project).

The songs, many of which are embellished with strings and keyboards, often sound surprisingly close to show tunes: ”Ghetto Prisoners,” a call to disenfranchised inner-city dwellers to ”rise, rise, rise,” is a suitably uplifting Broadway-style anthem, while ”Big Things” is a street-level take on ”The Impossible Dream”; ”Hate Me Now,” Nas’ collaboration with Puff Daddy, even borrows its signature motif from Jesus Christ Superstar. No doubt about it: With the right choreography and costumes, I Am… could easily be marketed as rap’s answer to Rent. And Nas may touch on enough universal themes — sex, death, inequity, jealousy, retribution — to convince highfalutin critics that his vision is worthy of serious analysis. Of course, if I Am… ever makes it to Broadway, we hope its producers provide a libretto. The dude raps really fast. B

I am...

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