What if Nas’ “I Am...” Was Never Bootlegged? A Re-envisioning of the Polarizing Project’s Legacy
At the album’s 20th anniversary, we reexamine the legendary rapper’s third studio album and detail an alternate history of what its legacy would be today.
Twenty years ago, Nas released the most divisive LP in his catalog: I Am… By April 6, 1999, he had an underground classic (Illmatic) and a commercial breakthrough (It Was Written) under his belt. While the Queens MC once again found commercial success with I Am… — it sold 470,000 copies during its first week and became his second No. 1 record — creatively, it fell short. While it includes a couple of Nas’ classics (“Nas Is Like” and “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II”), critics have widely accepted it as one of his weaker releases, due to attempts at crossover hits (“Hate Me Now,” “You Won’t See Me Tonight,” and “Dr. Knockboot”) and uninspired album cuts that featured seemingly half-baked concepts and, for his caliber, subpar rapping (“Big Things,” “K-I-SS-I-N-G,” and “I Want to Talk To You”). Overall, I Am… lacked the type of focus and cohesive sound that audiences grew to know and love on his first two LPs.
For what was considered a mediocre album, I Am… has quite a bit of mythology surrounding it. Nas was almost suffocated during the photo shoot for the album cover, according to the photographer Danny Hastings. And the LP’s highest performing single, “Hate Me Now”, was overshadowed by a conflict between collaborator Puff Daddy and Nas’ consultant at the time, Steve Stoute. Less than two weeks after I Am’s… release, Puff visited MTV’s Total Request Live to premiere the “Hate Me Now” video, directed by Hype Williams, which included a depiction of Nas and Puffy being crucified. The Bad Boy exec had requested that the scene of him hanging on a cross be removed. After the video aired on TRL, with the scene of Puffy on the cross still in, he rushed to Stoute’s office and attacked him with a bottle of champagne.
But the most pivotal incident surrounding I Am… was the album’s leak, which led to its delay and a restructuring of the track list.
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In February 1999, almost two full months ahead of the album’s original March 30th release date, 13 unreleased tracks from Nas’ forthcoming release were leaked online, prompting him to push the album back and reconfigure the track listing. I Am… was originally going to be a double LP entitled I Am… The Autobiography, with the first disc following his journey from birth to death by suicide, and the second disc chronicling his afterlife. But Nas and Columbia, his label at the time, opted to scrap the two-disc release and the overall concept. Songs that would’ve been highlights on the project – “Poppa Was a Player,” “Fetus (Belly Button Window),” “Drunk By Myself” – were cut from the disc, while commercial attempts (“Hate Me Now” and “You Won’t See Me Tonight”) were added. The version of the project that hit record store shelves was a disjointed, unfocused 16 tracks featuring some of Nas’ strongest and weakest songs at that point in his career.
Now, at the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, listeners remember, regret, and rejoice over the polarizing project. But what would’ve happened if I Am… was never leaked and was released as Nas had originally intended? Here’s an alternate history of what I Am…’s lasting legacy could have been.
Nas reaches both commercial and critical peak.
On March 30, 1999, Nas released I Am… The Autobiography, and it was heralded as an instant classic. The LP sealed Nas’s slot as one of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers, thanks to songs like “Blaze a 50,” “Undying Love,” “Fetus,” and “Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive.” I Am… was compared to other high profile double LPs, namely 2Pac‘s All Eyez on Me, Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, and Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever. However, unlike those albums, I Am… was praised by fans and critics for its lack of filler, in addition to its storyline and cohesive sound. Songs like “Project Windows,” “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II,” and “Poppa Was a Playa” would go on to be considered staples in Nas’ ironclad catalog.
In a world where Nas was able to release his third LP as a two-disc concept album, he would go on to avoid some of the biggest blunders of his early career. In this alternate timeline, Nas never releases “Hate Me Now,” which was one of his first and most blatant attempts at a crossover hit. Without this song being added to the tracklist, Nas avoids another unforced error of making the “Hate Me Now” video, which was seen as offensive to some, with its sensitive religious images, and confusing to others, with its departure from what fans had expected from Nas. He’d also avoid replicating what 2Pac had already done two years earlier, with his Jesus crucifixion imagery on the Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album cover.
In this alternate timeline, Nas also avoids putting out Nastradamus, which is widely considered to be the worst release in his discography. When Nas scrapped the double LP plan, he opted instead to release two separate albums within six months of each other. Pivotal songs were left off of I Am…, but there was still a possibility that they would appear on his fourth LP. However, Nas ended up only keeping a handful of those tracks (“Last Words,” “Project Windows,” “Some of Us Have Angels”) for Nastradamus, and he recorded a new batch of songs for the release. What were considered some of Nas’ worst songs — “You Owe Me,” “Big Girl,” and “Nastradamus” — were added on to this hasty, half-hearted LP.
A cultural shift in mainstream hip-hop.
Nas releasing I Am… as he originally intended shifted the landscape of hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I Am’s… commercial success and critical acclaim gave rappers a different formula for success, effectively killing off the “shiny suit” era of the late ‘90s. Puff Daddy avoids the scuffle with Steve Stoute, but he would face other problems in this new era of rap music. Mase, the biggest star on Bad Boy at the time, struggled in this post-Jiggy climate, and his sophomore release, Double Up, fails to match the sales of his debut. He would go on to become the late ‘90s equivalent to MC Hammer and would leave music to become a pastor shortly after putting out his sophomore effort. Puff’s Forever album, released four months after I Am…, would also be a commercial flop; the album would be widely panned for its played-out R&B-flavored sound.
Many artists duplicate Nas’ two-disc approach, which would lead to many long, poor quality albums. After releasing two records in 1998, DMX would return in December of 1999 with a double LP of his own, … And Then There Was X. While it spawned some of DMX’s biggest hits “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “What These Bitches Want,” fans quickly got DMX-fatigue, which drastically hurt the Yonkers MC’s music career until he decided to take on acting full time. The Lox leave Bad Boy for the Ruff Ryders, and it proves to be a wise move. Their second LP, 2000’s We Are the Streets, becomes a commercial success thanks to its raw sound, but many fans and critics believe that the 30-song album was 15 tracks too long.
Nas becomes the undisputed King of New York.
JAY-Z would become the biggest offender of the gratuitous two-disc album trend of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. In 1998, he was one of the biggest rappers in the world. However, after Nas’ success with I Am…, Hova decided to extend his fourth LP, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, to two discs: a Life side and a Times side. The Life side was similar to Nas’ first disc of I Am…, with more raw, autobiographical songs, and the Times being more of the glossy, Jiggy sound that he maintained on Vol. 2. Despite the first half of the album containing some of JAY-Z’ best work since Reasonable Doubt, many fans go on to see it as a clear rip off of Nas and it flops.
After putting out what is deemed one of the greatest three-album runs in hip-hop history (rivaled only by OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul), Nas takes a few years away from music. He does some acting work, including a role in the 2001 blockbuster The Fast and the Furious. Releasing a worthy follow up to I Am… The Autobiography proves to be a challenge for the rapper. It was clear that Nas was out of ideas for his fourth album, Nasdaq DowJones.
The lead single “Rat Race,” would be a failed attempt to duplicate his earlier personification songs, such as “Last Words” and “I Gave You Power.” Around this time, JAY-Z (who was bitter about Vol. 3 flopping) built a nice niche for himself in the underground scene. With Nas catching the first major L of his career, Hova sees this as an opportunity to recapture the throne of New York with one of the greatest diss tracks ever. JAY-Z dismantles Nas, calling him fake deep and overrated. This helped spark inspiration from the Queens MC, as he responded with an incendiary diss, “Ether,” quickly followed by Stillmatic, an album focused on getting back to the basics that included production from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip.
What would the two-disc version of I Am… even look like? There are many fan-made tracklists on the internet that claim to be the real I Am… The Autobiography, but nothing has proven to be 100 percent accurate. It’s also impossible to say a two-disc version of I Am… would’ve lived up to the hype in this alternate reality of a timeline. There’s still a chance Nas could have botched the album without the leak by adding radio-friendly tracks and tinkering with songs, the way he did with Street’s Disciple, Hip Hop is Dead, and Untitled.
But it’s fun to envision a world where Nas never had to force singles for radio play and was able to stick to his true vision and sound. But of course, this alternate timeline doesn’t exist. Instead, 13 songs leaked onto the peer-to-peer music file-sharing website Napster, changing the fate of hip-hop forever.
Zach Gase is a freelance writer and an avid music lover. Follow him on Twitter @GooseOhio.