Which hip-hop album deserves the honor of being called the greatest of all time? In a genre so heavily motivated by competition—among artists and fans alike—there isn’t a consensus but there are certainly a number of viable contenders. A few that come to mind are: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, the Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (some folks would choose A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders instead). And that’s not even a full list.
The guidelines for choosing hip-hop’s greatest album(s) generally strike me as abstract and amorphous. It’s a fluid process, one of intuition and precarious readings of hip-hop’s musical tea leaves while attempting to weigh ever-changing considerations such as the artist’s skills as an emcee, the hotness and longevity of the beats on an album, and the album’s overall impact. No doubt, nearly every hip-hop enthusiast has an opinion on this, even if it’s only to hate on other people’s selections, and most have personal favorites that, for any number of reasons, are near and dear to their hearts (you like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, right? Main Source’s Breaking Atoms?).
One album generates a bit more love than most, and garners more agreement about its place at the summit of hip-hop achievement. This album by itself launched its star into the hip-hop pantheon occupied by lyrical titans like Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G. Rap. That album is Nas’ Illmatic, perhaps the most important debut LP in rap history and definitely the most important entry in Nas’ discography.
But I have to be honest. My relationship with Illmatic has always been tenuous. I remember the buzz surrounding its release, and I’ve watched it grow in stature and prestige over the years, but I’ve never been able to say I love it or that I’ve played it nonstop. When I first heard it, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. There were a lot of albums I liked more, not only Public Enemy’s aforementioned Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet and releases from A Tribe Called Quest, but also Big Daddy Kane’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing, MC Lyte’s Eyes on This, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, and LL Cool J’s Bigger & Deffer and Mama Said Knock You Out.
Nevertheless, I kept returning to Illmatic, partially out of a need to understand what I was missing, and partially because something new would grab me with each listen. I still don’t completely love the album, but I absolutely respect it. I suppose the upside to my experience is that I never measured Nas’ career against the gold standard of his debut. I haven’t felt those pangs of disappointment when a Nas album—like, say, Nastradamus—fell short of Illmatic‘s fabled promise.
Recently, I made the mistake of telling a friend, who’s an Illmatic fan, that I listen to Nas’ Hip Hop is Dead and Untitled albums way more than I listen to Illmatic. I might’ve also mentioned that I’m not really into the Illmatic tracks “Life’s a B*tch”, “One Love”, and “Memory Lane”, and that I don’t like the percussion elements in some of the beats—too flat and tin-sounding. My friend was flabbergasted. That’s how deep it runs with Illmatic. In some circles, anything less than total enthusiasm for its track list and production is blasphemy.
I recognize how much of an achievement the album is, even though it’s not one of my favorites. What’s so good about it? Why do hip-hoppers love it so much?
Books in the 33 1/3 series spotlight phenomenal albums. Through intriguing but concise analysis, this series strives to illuminate the riddle of what makes “great” albums so “great”, exploring the conditions that give rise to specific releases and the insight to be gleaned from the finished product’s lyrical and musical content. Matthew Gasteier’s 33 1/3 book, simply entitled Illmatic, puts the album’s greatness into words. Relying on interviews, a variety of source material, and lyrical interpretation, it also positions Nas the Emcee and Illmatic the Album into a larger cultural context.
Gasteier covers the usual ground of the album’s singular logistics: the short running time of its ten tracks (albums are usually a lot longer now, and often contain too many skits and segues); the lone guest appearance from AZ on “Life’s a B*tch” (nowadays, albums typically feature lots of guest stars); the album’s team of skilled producers in Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor (as opposed to the single deejay production format of yesteryear); and Nas’ seamless verses that continue Rakim’s tradition of multisyllabic rhyme schemes, internal rhymes, and alliteration.
But Illmatic is more than an individual emcee making an individual album. It’s a paradigm shift occurring at a precise musical moment. It’s an event. Gasteier captures this feeling quite well in his treatment of the album, helping to explain why Nas’ little ten-track album lyrically and musically elevated the rap game. This isn’t just a bunch of essays about why some guy thinks some album is dope, it’s an attempt to encapsulate that album’s importance to hip-hop, and ultimately to music as a whole. In fact, the author intentionally avoids overly personalizing his analysis by explicitly refusing to chalk up the album’s artistic weight to his own personal connection to it.
This approach suits Gasteier well, actually, because any number of albums might’ve helped someone through a tumultuous breakup or a rough financial patch, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify the work for classic status. Personal taste plays a role, however, as it usually does in matters of critique, even within a discipline as objective and well-balanced as music criticism (wink). For instance, Gasteier early on declares his belief that Nas is the greatest emcee of all time. I’m not saying it’s an outrageous claim—actually, I can sort of see the logic in it—but it does indicate a pro-Nas tendency and explains why the book’s analysis is heavier on positives than negatives, or why the book is perhaps a little too quick to explain away possible negatives and works a touch too hard to prove the virtues.
One example of a quick dismissal is Gasteier’s discussion of the critique that Nas “never actually lived the life he raps about in his songs.” The response is twofold. First, he argues that Nas has provided so much insight in his rhymes over the course of his career that such critiques are rendered “useless”. Credibility is such a huge factor in hip-hop that I’m not sure the truth of Nas’ personal experiences, or lack thereof, can be so easily waived.
Second, he argues that Nas’ ability to tap into the communal experience, despite not experiencing it himself, could “enhance his own mythology”. Here, the author asserts that it’s an impressive feat to “absorb another’s reality” and convey it convincingly to someone who’s unfamiliar with it, to the point that they “form an emotional connection to the experience”. I’m not sure that’s the issue here. For me, it’s more impressive for Nas to convince people who are familiar with a particular lifestyle that he has lived it too, even if he hasn’t.
An outsider convincing another outsider? Novelists do that all the time. An outsider convincing an insider? Sounds like genius to me.