Friday, March 7, 2008
No. 400: Illmatic
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: There are albums critics hate. There are albums critics like. There are albums that critics love. And then, there is "Illmatic," probably the most fawned-over album in hip hop's history. No one doesn't like this album. And, for the most part, the love fits.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It, I'm sorry, sometimes sounds a little dated. As wonderful as Nas' lyricism is -- and it's wonderful -- there are a couple of songs that sound like 1994. Not many. But a couple. Still, this record deserves to be higher, as it influenced so many artists and, more importantly, is simply a masterpiece.
Best song: "Memory Lane" is the type of song that a lot of backpack hip hop references and could be Nas' best lyrics on the album. "N.Y. State of Mind" is a wonderful record.
Worst song: "Represent" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.
There's a consensus that Nas' undwhelming post-"Illmatic" records aren't anywhere near as good as the rapper's debut. I can't speak to all of them -- I only have three Nas records -- but I do think "God's Son" is probably as good as "Illmatic."
Of course, "God's Son" is the first record of his I had ever owned. It is my favorite. This leads me here to a theory...
Simpsons creator Matt Groening has a theory that anything serial is looked at by fans as being constantly deteriorating from the point which that specific fan first encountered the particular thing. He uses "The Simpsons" as the example, in that the first generation of the show found the third and fourth seasons to be the best (the seasons when the show was most popular). Whatever you first saw is what you will love the best.
Another Simpsons writer (I'm blanking on whom) mentions on the same DVD commentary that something serial will have to change things enough, because everything else has been done. For example, charges of Homer being too stupid were levied at the show as early as season six, mostly because the writers needed to continue to push some sort of envelope. This is how "22 Short Films About Springfield" was made, as well. Someone had to do something to switch it around.
Most artists' debut albums aren't the first ones critics and fans get to hear. Most bands fly under the radar on their first albums while they tour and gain more fans. The bands' second album turns out to be the best-received a lot of the time.
The great example is Death Cab for Cutie, one of my favorite bands. Death Cab's first proper album didn't get crazy reviews, while "We Have the Fact and We're Voting Yes" blew the hell up. Arcarde Fire's first few records weren't super popular, but when "Neon Bible" came out, boy, howdy.
Hip hop isn't necessarily like that. Like certain rock and roll bands (I'm thiiiiiinking... The Strokes. The most hyped band in my lifetime.), hip hop debuts often get incredibly hyped. This promotion makes it so that the debuts are looked at in the same way as most popular episodes of "The Simpsons." Many fans -- myself included, by the way -- think "The Simpsons" will never do anything near the quality of seasons 3-6. Similarly, it will take a real masterpiece for 50 Cent to make a record better than "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."
And, as most critics got into Nas through "Illmatic," it is both his blessing and curse. The album is brilliant, on par with Jay-Z's "Reasonable Doubt" and B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die" as classics of East Coast hip hop. It's a beautiful street tale, with introspective lyrics and inventive beats. Nas chronicles but does not praise the street life on "Illmatic." For that, it is a classic.
But, it's also the standard by which he will always be measured. Even if "Nigger," his next album, is better than "Illmatic," it won't be considered as good. Critics will always hoist the first-heard album as the best. Just look at the critical reaction to the album. Rapreviews.com called Nas the "new Rakim." Allmusic.com calls him thoughtful but ambitious. MTV calls it the second best hip hop album. Ever. Trevor Nelson calls it the fifth best album by a black artist ever (coming after only Marvin Gay, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy and Stevie Wonder.) About.com calls it one of the 10 essential hip hop albums, noting it as the "hip-hop bible."
No subsequent album can measure up to that praise. It is, sadly, the way things go.