Thursday, December 2, 2010
There's a wide world of difference between greatness and not-sucking. Nas devotees talk about the merits of all of his albums, and how Illmatic isn't his only great album. But they are wrong. While his arch nemesis Jay-Z became the best rapper of his time, Nas put out boring album after boring album. And it doesn't matter what Jay-Z ripped off or anything, because if Nas's music had just been better, nothing would have mattered. But with that all said, Illmatic is perfect in so many ways, it's no wonder that Nas could never achieve something so great again.
Illmatic is the basis of the argument that Nas is the rightful heir to Rakim's throne of greatest MC. For a brief period, it was certainly true. Rakim was the first to find exceptionally creative ways to show his dominance in style over other rappers, and with lines like "Nas's rap should be locked in a cell," it's clear Nas has a grasp on that ability as well. There are dozens (if not more) lines akin to that one that illustrate Nas's poetic ability, but what sets Nas apart from so many great MCs that came before him is the visuals in his songs, and the ways he paints a portrait of what his background is like.
Nas was far from the first great post-Rakim MC, but the greatness of the album's lyrics comes from being about more than just his own greatness. "N.Y. State of Mind" sets the tone for the album, but it even alludes to more serious subject matter: "It's like the game ain't the same/got-younger niggas pulling the trigga bringing fame to they name." Elsewhere, on songs like "One Love" (a personal letter to a friend in prison) and "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" even has some religious undertones: "Judges hanging niggas, uncorrect bails, for direct sales/My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails." I could go on and on about the lyrics (as you'd expect from a great hip hop record), but there are two more important things that make this album great.
BREVITY. The biggest rap fans in the world can't defend 75 minutes of music per album. Illmatic is 10 songs in 40 minutes. Every moment is great, and there isn't a single song worth skipping over. From the screeching train tracks to the keyboards in "It Ain't Hard To Tell," there isn't a wasted moment on the record. I've read that there was dozens of tracks left off the album, and it's clear that the cuts that made it had the attention they all deserved, which made them so good.
And of course, production-wise, this album is hard to beat. Pete Rock helps make "The World Is Yours" one of the best hip hop songs ever. Q-Tip and Premier are two more incredibly important names that pop up in production credits.
When recorded, after 36 Chambers was released and after Tribe were at their peak, as well as solo-Wu albums and Jay-Z and Biggie blowing up still a year or two away, this album had the most talent on it of any hip hop record around. Too many cooks in the kitchen is a cliche reserved for the negative, but here it works perfectly, and it's hard to think of an album that could top it.