Nasty Nas takes us into the post-Chronic era of hip-hop (5 stars)
, January 2, 2009
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What could I possibly say about "Illmatic" that millions of other reviewers haven't said already. Where do you start with an album that has been hailed time and time again, as the best hip-hop album of the 90s? It's a crowing achievement that Nas rests his reputation on comfortably. I was never into rap back in the mid-90s, so subsequently, I slept on this album up until 3 weeks ago. I finally decided to pick it up after I read an interview with one of my favorite [underground] rappers, Mr. Lif. He was grouping Nas "Illmatic" with classics from Public Enemy and BDP as some of his favorite rap albums of all time. I guess I never got into rap in the mid-90s because I didn't think it was all that great. I was never a very big fan of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" or Snoop Dogg's work (although they undoubtedly have their strong points). Needless to say, I'm happy that Nas brought back the street poet aesthetic that hip-hop needed. Not that Nas is completely different from the bunch. He recruited the best jazz-rap producers in the biz, including Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor. The beats are strong, and Nas' lyrics are rough and tough. He really brings rap back to the hardcore street style of Rakim, Chuck D, and Gang Starr. Most importantly, Nas brands himself as a highly literate street poet. The lyrics are observatory reactions to everyday life. His outlook is more interesting than what a lot of emcees bring to the table. Without a doubt, Nas is an emcee's emcee. His fluid flow is nothing less than addictive ear candy for yours truly.
You will hear a lot of hip-hop heads going on about how 1994 was the year for hip-hop. I have never understood that. 1988 was the year for rap. But after hearing a record like "Illmatic", I can see where they are coming from. Although I can't honestly say that this stuff is more groundbreaking than Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice-T, Beastie Boys etc.. I will say that Nas has made something that stands strongly next to those talents. But to think that this is more groundbreaking than some records from 1987 or 1988 is a bit ridiculous. Nas might have a state of the art flow, but the beats are hardly groundbreaking (not to say they're bad, because they're great).
Since rap moved it's way into the mainstream by the mid-90s, "Illmatic" was pretty successful on the charts. "It Ain't Hard to Tell" reached number 3, "One Love" and "The World Is Yours" reached number 6 and "Half Time" reached number 8. That's pretty substantial for a hip-hop record back then. But I would have to say my favorite cut would be "Life's a Bi*ch".
Nas came in at the right time to stir up the music industry. It was a positive step away from the Chronic-era that brought things back to brass tactics. I can fully understand why this album is at the top of every hip-hop heads top 10 list. But I have a bigger question. Who the hell is going to save us from the bling-bling era of rap. Seriously, is mainstream rap dead? If you ask me, yes, yes it is. It's sad that people hate rap because of the horrible reputation it's been given by artists like Cam'Ron, Chingy, Nelly, and countless other (c)rap artists. That's the way I felt until I discovered underground rap. Rap is still alive, and artists like Atmosphere, Eyedea & Abilities, Brother Ali, Binary Star, Company Flow (El-P), Mr. Lif, Edan, Latyrx, Lyrics Born, Aesop Rock, Sage Francis...etc are as real as it gets. And if you ask this reviewer, the new underground hip-hop brought forth by labels such as Rhymesayers and Definitive Jux is becoming just as influential as old-school hip-hop (late 80s). Don't give up on the genre, just give up on the mainstream aspect of it.