Friday, August 22, 2008

Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville

Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville
by Lisa Oliver

Blowjob, blowjob, blowjob. Okay, that’s out of the way.

No, wait – fuck, fuck, fuck.

Now we can discuss Liz Phair.

I’ve never been a Liz Phair fan. She’s one of those artists I like in theory (Pavement anyone?) but not in practice. I remember when Exile in Guyville came out and was touted as her reply to Exile on Main Street, which just sounds dumb. Then I actually heard the album, and it did indeed sound dumb – it’s the confused musing of a girl who doesn’t understand her vocal range and likes to get her tits out. However, I’m no stranger myself to being a confused girl who doesn’t understand her vocal range and likes to get her tits out. So occasionally I’d cut her some sisterhood slack and revisit. Its low-fi, vocal warbling just began to sound more and more dated as time went on. Plus, her pandering, whining, little-girl bullshit began to get on my tits. Or maybe it just hit too close to the tits for me. I double-dog dare anyone to find a strong-willed, self-confident woman who doesn’t silently long for a boyfriend to give her the stupid old shit like sodas and letters. I guess Liz (like the rest of us) had to learn the literal hard way that just because a boy fucks you, that doesn’t mean he really likes you. Still, you do have to admire someone who spreads one’s diary pages open as easily as spreading one’s legs open for the entire world to see.

I much prefer the Liz Phair of “Never Said,” a subtle yet wicked Liz Phair. She’s not quite the wordsmith she thinks she is but still…when she purrs that she’s clean as a whistle…that is the sound of thighs getting wet. But then she counters all the good clever stuff with her steadfast dedication to being photographed with her cupid’s bow lips parted, head tilted back, doing her best Alicia Silverstone impression pose. Got it Liz – you dig giving head. Now, can you either get your head down there or just move on please?

I’ll follow my own request and just get my head down into her eponymous 2003 affair – which paradoxically strikes me as a grown-up answer to the adolescent meditation of Exile. She should have called it Homecoming in Womantown.

Instead of begging to be some dude’s blowjob queen, she’s playing with his Xbox. She’s no longer just “6’1,” she’s “Extraordinary.” She doesn’t need some douche for a boyfriend; she’s using his jizz as her personal age-retardant. I don’t know who Liz is blowing, but I’ve never encountered “hot” cum. Sounds like a choking hazard.

Yes, some of the music is Matrix-rocker-confections, and her vocals are pro-tooled and pitch-perfected to airbrushed-centerfold perfection, but I don’t care. It sounds happy, full of life and spunk (all kinds of spunk) on “It’s Sweet” and “Why Can’t I?” She’s shed her lo-fi hair shirt, crystallizing into the true goddess she was destined to be. Its amazing how growing up can make someone so content with who they are. If selling out makes her this at ease, she should have done it years ago.

Is her answer to the male gaze the female just-open-enough-mouthed stare? No, I don’t think she is clever enough to be fully cognizant of and able to toy with academic feminism. However, her answer to herself is making the music she wants to make and men, women, and the music press can all go to hell. I raise both my glass and my rack to her.

Lisa Oliver is a Columbia-educated writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Stylus, The Fly UK, Musicweek UK, Yahoo! Music, NME, Publishers Weekly, Domino and People.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Look Back in Anger #2

Look Back in Anger #2
by John M. Cunningham

What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? The intention of this column is to go back in the ol’ time machine to examine the albums that we personally named the best of a given year and see if we still feel the same way about them. Did they age well? Do we still play them? Did we leave off an album that we’re now kicking ourselves over? These are the questions we will be asking ourselves in this WWIA? Series.

This week, ex-Stylus alum John M. Cunningham reexamines his top 10 albums of 2002.

It was a few days after Christmas, 2002, while on vacation with my family in New York, and I was rambling at my dad about how guilty I felt for not having seen more movies or heard more albums over the course of the year. How could I justifiably put together a meaningful top 10 list when I had so many blind spots? My dad didn't get all the agony. "You make it sound," he interrupted, "like you're some sort of working critic."

He had a point. This was months before I started a blog and a whole two years before I was deemed qualified enough to participate in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll. I was writing for nobody. But mine was a generation weaned on Siskel & Ebert and Entertainment Weekly, and I had friends whose voracious appetites for pop culture resulted in a barrage of e-mails at year's end, trading lists of favorites. As someone who, at age 13, proudly designated winners of the 1st Annual JMC Movie Awards, I was hardly immune to these kinds of diversions. In fact, I took them embarrassingly seriously. Not long before I arrived in New York I'd had a dispute with my friend Matt, for instance, over whether or not critics' top 10s should be purposefully eclectic (he voted yes; I was put off by anything that bore any trace of dishonesty and loudly said so).

So of course I had attempted to assemble a list of my favorite albums of 2002 on the plane ride over, and a month and a half later, once I got over whatever trepidation I felt about my critical myopia, I revised it and posted it on the I Love Music message board, as follows:

1. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights

2. Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet

3. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

4. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes

5. Mum, Finally We Are No One

6. Archer Prewitt, Three

7. Pretty Girls Make Graves, Good Health

8. The Notwist, Neon Golden

9. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

10. Enon, High Society

There are a couple of things that make this snapshot interesting to me in retrospect. For one, though I had frequently pored over the best-of issues published by magazines like Spin, I didn't always make it a priority to actually hear the albums mentioned therein, instead choosing to follow my own increasingly rarefied tastes (by the turn of the decade, this meant mostly post-rock and lounge-pop). In 2002, however, I was reading Pitchfork more regularly than before (my brother, whom I lived with, was an intern there), and it suddenly seemed important to expand my listening habits, especially toward the guitar-based indie rock the site lionized.

The other thing is that shortly after I compiled this list, my musical taste would undergo a more significant shift, as the twin influences of ILM (discovered February 2003) and Limewire (downloaded July 2003) made me more sympathetic to hip-hop, chart-pop, and electronic dance music in particular, and hungrier to explore new music in general.

The main conclusion to be drawn here is that 2002 was a transitional year for me musically, which makes this list a perfect candidate for some ex-post-facto reconstruction. In the last couple of weeks, I've re-listened to everything above, along with a slate of more than a dozen other contenders, to determine which of these albums hold up six years later and which might be swapped out. Let's start from the top.

* * *


After Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights came out, you couldn't mention you liked it without having to fend off accusations that the band was a too-chic Joy Division rip-off. I strenuously argued against this claim, partly out of a firm belief that there was nothing wrong with derivativeness per se (I defended the Strokes a year before, too), but also partly because, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" excluded, I had never actually heard Joy Division. Turns out it didn't matter. Not only is it apparent to me now that Interpol borrowed from a whole host of early '80s Anglo mope-rock bands, but even hearing their fifth or sixth supposed influence has done little to lessen the appeal of this record. The tight, insistent rhythm section provides a superb foil for Paul Banks's preposterous non-sequiturs (which, like Morrissey's, are a trip to sing along to), and there are a handful of transcendent moments: I still get a rush when the drums kick back in near the end of "PDA." Their subsequent albums have suffered from diminishing returns, but this one's a keeper.


Another reason why I consider 2002 a transitional year is that I got a new iMac that summer and with it one of the most life-changing software applications I've known: iTunes. Nowadays the first thing I'll do upon buying a new CD is import it into iTunes, for ease of listening later. Back then, however, I didn't fully appreciate how awesome it would be to have my entire record collection at my instantaneous disposal, and so plenty of albums from around that time never made it onto the digital realm. Do Make Say Think's & Yet & Yet, a spacey, rhythmically jazzy Canadian post-rock record, was one of them. It's a challenge to re-evaluate something you haven't heard in several years (at some point I stopped listening to CDs altogether, and I had to dig this one out of a box in the closet), since you're never sure if your enjoyment is merely a result of enough time having elapsed to make it seem novel. But in fact, the reason I feel okay about hanging onto this album is because my recent listen wasn't surprising or revelatory at all. It was comfortable, like a lot of post-rock is for me. That expansive mix of shuffling drums and loping guitar lines seemed like something I could keep listening to for a while. So it, too, makes the cut.


Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a good example of an album I probably wouldn't have bothered with but for an inclination that year to keep up with critically lauded rock music. I liked the twangy "Box Full of Letters," from A.M., which got some local radio play when I was in high school, but I thought about the band so rarely over the next few years that I was somewhat caught off-guard when friends from college began to praise Being There and Summerteeth. Here's the boring truth, though: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the best Wilco album and, despite demurrals from the likes of Robert Christgau, one of the best albums of 2002, as well. It's not because it's "weird," though I do dig Tweedy's postmodern poetry and Kotche's ramshackle pots-and-pans approach to percussion. The album's main virtue is as a stellar collection of well-crafted songs, and the best of the lot (the mournful "Jesus, Etc.") is in fact one of the most conventional. Wilco's next two records are worthwhile but flawed (however much I love Nels Cline's rippling guitar solos); given the choice, I'll stick with this one.


Now here's where things get interesting. When ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Source Tags & Codes was released, I readily cottoned to the band's noisy art-rock aesthetic, which seemed equal parts Sonic Youth ("How Near How Far") and Fugazi ("Baudelaire"). It's another record I hadn't heard in maybe five years, however, and when I tried it on again, I was struck by two things: one, how the songs still sparkled, and two, how I had unfairly maligned Sonic Youth's Murray Street. There's an attractive swagger on the Trail of Dead record, but in putting it at #4 I know I was also swayed by Pitchfork's 10.0 review (that and the review of Wilco a month later were the last two perfect scores the site would give out for new albums) and the album's undeniable ambition and cohesiveness, qualities I don't generally value as highly in today's mp3-inundated environment. Murray Street, meanwhile, seemed to fall off toward the end (my friend Emily claimed that "Plastic Sun" was the only cut she liked; I thought it was annoyingly inept) and overall didn't feel like the big best-in-10-years comeback many reviews had promised. I still think it's an imperfect record -- it mostly sounds like a rehearsal for the superior follow-ups, which carve diamonds out of that cool jammy haze -- but it's an imperfect record by one of my favorite bands of all time, and there are moments here (the tangled solos on "Rain on Tin," especially) that a band like Trail of Dead wishes it could match.


In 2002 I didn't have anything against electronic music conceptually; I was just skeptical of what was played in clubs. In fact, I was thrilled to discover Múm's Finally We Are No One, since it grafted melancholic melodies onto a strain of otherwise icy, abstract IDM. I still think highly of "Green Grass of Tunnel" and "We Have a Map of the Piano," both delicately anchored by the bewitching Valtýsdottír sisters' ethereal vocals, but much of the album's second half now sounds tedious and formulaic; there's only so much lonely, sighing melodica one can take. These days I prefer Out Hud's S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D., which, dumb title notwithstanding, makes richer use of its "organic" materials (scratchy guitar, doleful cello) as counterpoint to its electronic beats. Plus, it's danceable. The band's second album is arguably stronger, but it lacks a single moment as gripping as the climax to "Dad, There's a Little Phrase Called Too Much Information," when that frantic twisted-metal synth-noise reaches a fever pitch, then simply falls away.


As a fan of the Sea and Cake, I was naturally drawn to dashing guitarist Archer Prewitt's solo work, and Three didn't disappoint. More '70s orchestral pop than the stripped-down, jazz-inflected style of his usual band, the album was crammed with full-blown sunshine-filled hooks, and most tracks took a clever or unexpected zig-zag or two between start and finish. But I hardly ever listen to it today, and I think that's because, as impressive an achievement as it is, it often feels overstuffed and devoid of personality beneath the expertly constructed, complexly arranged songs. There's more life to be found in the Aluminum Group's Happyness, an equally effortless indie-pop production from fellow Chicago scenesters John and Frank Navin. After experimenting with a different producer for each of their three previous records, the Navin brothers decided to take charge themselves on this one (though John McEntire is credited as an engineer), and the result is probably the best record of their careers. These are sleek, minimalist synth-pop songs that seem tailor-made for iPod headphones (indeed, as of this album, the Navins replaced their live band with an iPod backing track), with lush, buoyant harmonies bespeaking love and loss. I honestly have no idea why I snubbed this at the time.


I once wrote a treatise on emo in which I confessed that while never a full-fledged fan of the genre, I've dallied in it enough to find a few gems here and there. One such find that I somehow failed to mention was Pretty Girls Make Graves, whose 2002 debut, Good Health, wowed me from its first explosive note. It's a short album, just shy of a half-hour, but within that span it packs a lot of raw, infectious attitude, as Andrea Zollo's hopped-up snarls navigate a thicket of darting, swerving guitars. Since this sort of rough-hewn rock (emo or not) is still only an occasional pleasure of mine, and I've never even heard anything else they've done, I nearly surprised myself by deciding to keep it on the list, but recent listens sounded pretty rad. (Recommended, by the way, to those still mourning the demise of Be Your Own Pet.)


In my first-ever blog post (April 2003, yo), I praised the early-decade trend of blending analog melodies and glitchy rhythms, a microgenre that Rob Mitchum, in a Pitchfork review, termed "lap-pop." The Múm album above fit my conception of the aesthetic, as did the Books' Thought for Food (which I also auditioned for this piece), but the best example I had was probably the Notwist's Neon Golden, a pristine, spacious chamber-pop album decorated with crushing, skittering beats. (For some reason a measure of wistfulness was also central to this hybrid sound, and the Notwist had it in spades.) I've gone back to this one on and off for the last few years, but hearing a track like "The One with the Freaks," in which Markus Acher's fragile vocals set up a sudden outbreak of warm alt-rock guitar, made retaining this album a no-brainer.


Okay, I have to admit something now. I haven't re-listened to a lick of the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. That's partly because it never made it onto my iPod, but it's mostly because I don't like it anymore and don't want to reconsider. At the time I even defended it to detractors who considered it a step down from The Soft Bulletin; as a fan since Clouds Taste Metallic, I was happy to see them forging new directions, especially the foray into drum'n'bass on "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21." But not long after, I saw the band in an auditorium with Beck and began to be irked by Wayne Coyne's dumbshit grin and huckster routine; later, what I realized about "Do You Realize??" was that it was unforgivably mawkish, and when the bland "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon" won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance, it felt like an affront. In 2008 the band feels like a relic of my nothing-but-indie-rock past, and so I take a perverse pleasure in substituting them here with a bona fide pop star: Justin Timberlake. I've often said that "Cry Me a River" was the song that perked up my ears and taught me how to love Top 40 again (via an accidental encounter on the radio), but the first eight tracks of Justified -- from the dazzling disco workout "Rock Your Body" to the luxurious ballad "Take It From Here" -- are all so solid and engaging that they make up for the album's admittedly weak back half. Like Coyne, Timberlake's a natural showman, but he benefits from better songs.


Lastly, I couldn't find much to quibble with on Enon's High Society, an album full of weird, tuneful nuggets of indie rock, some of which bear traces of singer John Schmersal's old spazz-rock band Brainiac, and others of which feature dance tempos and girlish vocals from Toko Yasuda. (My favorite cut is still the spiky "Natural Disasters.") Compared with the bulk of indie rock in 2002, Enon was plenty quirky, but if album covers are anything to judge by, let it be noted that a fun day-glo collage is one thing, but a cartoon of yourself in the form of a merman, playing the piano with your fins and the drums with your tail, is quite another. I didn't hear Max Tundra's Mastered by Guy at the Exchange until a couple of years after its release, after some glowing recommendations on ILM, but the scope of its sonic palette -- jumping from sped-up Casio jazz to spooky ambient burbles to a harmonium interlude that reminds me of Badly Drawn Boy -- drew me in immediately. Amazingly, Tundra also manages to weave in some strangely catchy melodies amidst all the hyperactivity. Six years later, and there's not much else that sounds like it.

* * *

So that's it. But there's no way I can rank these again without another prolonged bout of agony, so I'm going to be semi-scientific (and semi-bullshit) about it and list them in order of their iTunes play counts since mid-2003 (averaging out the number of tracks and not giving a shit that some of these weren't even in my library until a week ago):

1. Justin Timberlake, Justified*

2. The Aluminum Group, Happyness

3. Out Hud, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.

4. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights

5. The Notwist, Neon Golden

6. Pretty Girls Make Graves, Good Health

7. Max Tundra, Mastered by Guy at the Exchange

8. Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet

9. Sonic Youth, Murray Street

10. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

*Yes, I've played "Rock Your Body" 44 times.

And for a sampling of each album, check out

John M. Cunningham was a staff writer for Stylus Magazine and has recently written profiles of Timbaland and Miley Cyrus for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

µ-Ziq - Royal Astronomy

µ-Ziq - Royal Astronomy
by Ian Mathers

If I wondered whether this generation's getting a proper grounding in the Smiths, I worry even worse if they’ve even heard of Mike Paradinas. An important component of my listening when I started getting into music was investigating what was then the “hip” “and new” trend of, well, in those days they called it electronica. Thanks to, and in conjunction with, my friend Pete, we started on Orbital and Underworld and then ventured further afield until we were digging up things that made Aphex Twin sound like pop music. Heady days, and half of the stuff we rhapsodized over appealed to us in terms of weirdness and excess more than anything else.

But not Paradinas’ records as µ-Ziq. One of the relatively few discs from that period that I still kept around, Royal Astronomy should particularly stand as a classic, one of the few proper LPs of what they used to call IDM that actually provides an interesting, intelligible listening experience today. Arguably better assembled and composed than even Richard D. James’ work (excepting maybe …I Care Because You Do), you can’t say Paradinas started many trends, but he did make the kind of album that should have ensured lasting repute.

Except he went away. Partly not his fault; after the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, etc. failed to supplant grunge or whatever as the new pop, the press visibly backed off on all flavours of “electronica.” Coupled with Paradinas’ adoption of a four-year wait time between albums after 1999, people just ceased talking about the guy anymore. Royal Astronomy received good reviews (the few I’ve found), but that’s never enough to keep anyone in the public consciousness (especially someone whose page at Astralwerks seems unduly proud of having sold “in excess of 60,000 world-wide” copies of his debut, before the days of file sharing). If we’re talking about greats of electronic music in the late 90s, you’ll hear James, probably Tom Jenkinson, teams like the Hartnoll brothers, possiblysome populists like Oakenfold (err, depending on who you’re talking to), but probably not Paradinas.

Obviously I feel that’s a shame, but why? After the memorably dense and creepy drum-and-bass soundscapes of 1997’s Lunatic Harness, Paradinas toured with Björk. Paradinas was influenced by her work with a string section during her live sets so much that he appended it to parts of his new album, as well as just heading in a relatively poppier direction. I'm guessing he also started listening to a lot of hiphop. Sound like an unholy brew so far?

The range of Royal Astronomy is best summed up by its first two tracks: “Scaling” starts the record all strings and bells and odd little synthesizer fillips, for four minutes it sounds unconcerned with any of the practical considerations that touch music made by humans. A timpani thuds away softly, the strings soar, the same little melodic figure calmly repeats—the result is sublime. Then “The Hwicci Song” dopplers into view with rapidly sawing strings and a more determined melody, only to be interrupted by turntable scratching (which does kind of sound like ‘hwicci’) and a sampled MC repeating “you want a fresh style, let me show you” until it frays. There’s a beat poking under it rather than just some percussion and it’s a fantastically busy one; Paradinas, like a lot of his peers, often suspended free-floating melodies above knotty, driving drum patterns, but does it so well he makes it fresh again.

“The Hwicci Song” alone is such a bizarre and yet pleasing collision of rough and smooth, frantic and calm, that it’s trouble to categorize. Much of Royal Astronomy does a similarly great job of combining these disparate elements: Paradinas’ experience in crafting complex drum-and-bass/abstract showcases, the strings and other orchestral elements, a canny pop sense, and rap’s sense of braggadocio and aggression.

The pinnacles of the latter are the two longest productions on the album, “The Motorbike Track” and “Burst Your Arm.” Both are hard as fuck and drop the strings entirely, deploying MCs to tell us, “That is some greedy-ass fake bullshit, know what I mean?” and “Keep on faking the funk” over wild rides of squelchy, distorted synthesizers and Paradinas’ hardest beats ever. They’re exhilaratingly brutal tracks, and only moreso given their surroundings.

One surprising peak is “Carpet Muncher”, a brief but incredible track that in three minutes shows off little bits of all of the facets Paradinas was working at, and is as close as this music can get to a killer pop. Elsewhere, Paradinas throws nearly everything at the wall—the horror movie soundtrack of “Gruber’s Mandolin,” the queasy synths of “World of Leather,” the reflective choirs of “56,” “Mentim”’s far-off explosions, the peaceful-village-on-acid video game “Slice”—and it all sticks. Part of this is cunning sequencing, opening with a string of immediate and ingratiating tracks, rationing out the harder/longer tracks over the course of the album to give some balance and heft to proceedings, throwing you just enough curves to keep you interested.

And then there’s Kazumi. A Japanese fan of Paradinas’ who mailed him a VHS tape (ah, nostalgia!) of herself singing to some of his tracks, a near impossible feat in the abstract. But she was good enough at it that he asked her to sing on a few tracks here. The closing “Goodbye, Goodbye” is nearly flawless, with Kazumi repeating the same line over and over on one of Paradinas’ most touching productions. It’s a perfect way to end the record and justifies the decision to enlist her help. But it doesn’t even come close to touching her other contribution to the album, the mighty “The Fear”.

I could write another entire essay just on how “The Fear” is one of the few truly great singles of its era and genre (as opposed to dancefloor tracks and the like) and dissecting why (plenty of which has to do with Kazumi’s performance, and plenty more to do with the music that Paradinas sets up around her), but you should really hear for yourself. It’s an utterly deranged moment of genius in the way only pop can be so weird, transmuting disparate, non-poplike attributes into something magnificent and lasting. “The Fear” comprises this strange woman muttering something you don't quite understand over a surprisingly bouncy, endlessly rising melodic figure, that develops into something else altogether and towers over its unlikely parts. It's always put me in mind of grand, heroic quests for some reason; both the feeling of setting out in a wide and dangerous world, and the bittersweet ending, when you've succeeded, but in the back of your mind regretting that it's all over.

Ian Mathers has written for Stylus Magazine, Village Voice and the world's biggest Philip K. Dick fan site. He is currently finishing his Master's degree in Philosophy at the University of Guelph and wishes he had more time to write about music.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Nas - Illmatic

Nas - Illmatic
by Dan Weiss

Illmatic is good. I was supposed to write about why it’s grossly overrated, why it’s left me cold and bored since I first gave it a whirl on The Source’s suggestion, why it makes half an hour feel like a goddamn eternity. But I dug it out, and it didn’t do that. After years of trying to grok its unanimously accounted genius and coming up with total static, I put it on and it sounded both pleasurable and familiar. A good half of it I remembered pretty well: “NY State of Mind,” “Life‘s a Bitch,” “The World is Yours,” “Represent,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” I tried to assail it, but it’s just too damn solid. But I can’t praise it either; again, it’s just too damn solid. The worst thing I can say about Illmatic is that it is not a very tall hurdle for Nas to jump again, and that people are fucking crazy for deeming him the most chained-to-his-debut artist of, arguably the last twenty years, in rap or otherwise.

Not only every Nastradamus he releases, but also the Street’s Disciples get ludicrously compared to this pleasant piece of Tribe Called Quest-with-street-cred as if some detuned jazz pianos and universal cleverisms (“life’s a bitch and then you die,” “sleep is the cousin of death”) were impossible to attain over and over in hip hop, consistently well-rhymed and in under half an hour. It’s hardly as influential as its influencees claim though; when’s the last time a rapper showed the discipline for a nine song album? If Fat Joe or Foxy Brown, to choose some New Yorkers at random, have ever even attempted to imitate this thing, no one’s talking. And Nas himself ran from it as soon as he had the money. Not that artists are to be trusted, it’s just that no long-term rapper has aged with more grace and shown so little for it judging by his reviews. I’m not going to talk about Illmatic at all actually; it hardly merits a comment. The rhymes are consistently spirited, rarely notable; the themes buried in aesthetic, the aesthetic buried in half-hooks that don’t go the distance and are praised for their relative obscurity just because. Oh, and it’s not very fun to listen to. The bonus remixes are thankfully tacked onto the reissue, every one of them hammering its original to pieces, even “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and especially “Life’s a Bitch.”

Illmatic is conveniently blank. It’s too cynical to be conscious, too weightless to be thug, not positive, not negative, happy, angry, aggressive, conflicted--anything. It’s whatever the novice rap scholar wants it to be, so long as he receives his course credit in return. But beyond that, don’t ask me what they do with it. Not quite made for the club or car or smoking weed or pep rallying a big battle; it’s for “Sittin’ in da Park” I guess. But sitting on the porch and reminiscing is fucking boring. I want to hear about Ghostface being chased with no shoes on, running by those people, not the bystanders shaking their head. You know, action.

There’s action in “Rewind,” on the album called Stillmatic but nothing like the retread its namesake suggests. There’s details for one thing, a full-fleshed story with swallowed nuts, holes in chests, phones to ears, and Gucci bags. Already that makes for an almost Ghost-worthy writeup. To top it off, it‘s told backward, right down to the dialogue (“Shoot don‘t please”). Of all the ink wasted dissecting what Nas is and isn’t doing right between 1996 to 2008, not a smear points out what a great novelty artist he is.

On later efforts, Nas actually leaves his comfort zone, and, as has been noted, achieves mixed results. The lows are never as egregious as sticklers say, and the highs are always better, and usually high-concept. Musically, he offsets his famous “dullness” with breaths of fresh air like Amerie’s Tears for Fears karaoke “Rule,” the Eurythmics rewrite “Street Dreams,” and two different takes on Iron Butterfly’s nasty, world-famous doom riff, the better of which excludes On “Bridging the Gap” he brought out his dad for the least sappy paternal love rap yet seen, namely because Olu Dara somehow makes a harmonica sound pimp. And who says he’s not having any fun? From a hit Sopranos interpolation to don’t-say-my-car’s-topless-say-the-titties-is-out to recounting which bitch used to eat his excrement and when (echoed in the similarly great “Nazareth Savage”: “I squeeze nipples like pimples to get the pus, get it?”) to goofing on his 9th grade book of rhymes (“Nah, that was weak there”) to playing hip hop detective, complete with Jimmy Caan inflection on “Who Killed It,” Nas has had bluntloads of fun that other guys never thought up over music he doesn’t get enough ear credit for. “Just a Moment” was especially gorgeous, and that’s from Street’s Disciple, the double that can fit almost three Illmatics inside it and is superior to the same amount, a rare case.

Nas also does more for the conscious crowd than Talib Kweli ever did. is fine and good at what he does, but if he’s ever gotten off a line like “I don’t even pick cotton out of aspirin bottles” by all means bring it to my attention. On his much ballyhooed new album he continues from 2004’s brutal “Coon Picnic (These Are Our Heroes)” to flog lots of obvious targets: Fox News, Katrina, racists, Uncle Toms, Bushies. The plan isn’t Dropping New Science, though, it’s Never Forget: If the targets were that easy they would’ve been stopped long ago. And unlike the grimmer and equally well-doing Roots, Nas thought to include two pro-Obama themes, both saner than Bono and one laced with Polow da Don ear candy. If those beats are too dull for you, just remember God’s Son is the one with James Brown and 2Pac unplugged, not Illmatic.

And then there’s The Lost Tapes. If you really need to reminisce on the porch, here’s your movie. Doo-rags and bloodied toilets, absentee fathers, kicking his mom in the stomach from the inside, accepting his limitations in four lines that haven’t stopped him yet: “No idea’s original/there’s nothing new under the sun/It’s never what you do/but how it’s done.” Four minutes of Lost Tapes are packed with streams of unreconstructed thought Illmatic could barely spread over 40, and these were outtakes. So yeah--Nas is inconsistent. But measure him against the future, please. He’s gone so much further than 1993.

Dan Weiss is an editorial intern at CMJ and the editor-at-large of What Was It Anyway. He enjoys questionable lifestyle choices in Brooklyn and has written for Village Voice, Stylus, Cleveland Scene, Philadelphia Inquirer and Lost at Sea.