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On his third release, I AM, Nas bolsters his reputation as one of hip-hop's leading wordsmiths. The 25-year-old has acted in a movie (Hype Williams's "Belly"), but his highly cinematic tales of the street suggest that his real ambition is to write them. Like a prison-yard bard, Nas tells crime stories full of blood and guts, but he balances them with a strong message opposing the plague of violence, as on "Small World" and "Favor for a Favor," which stress desperation as the cause of crime rather than glorify the criminal mindset. Except for "Dr. Knockboot," which casts Nas as a hip-hop columnist for the lovelorn, this rhythmic rapper is unremittingly sober, with a righteousness that would seem sanctimonious if not underpinned by the superb production of the Trackmasters and DJ Premier. Puff, Aaliyah, Scarface, and DMX appear on the recording, but none upstage the leader and, in addition to several songs destined for heavy rotation, I AM possesses a consistency and dynamic savvy that makes it an easy and enjoyable listen.