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.



Blogger toddthesecond said...

Wow, I thought this would at the very least generate some hate mail.

August 5, 2008 at 8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

deep down somthing alwats told me Nas's Lost Tape's was his secret attempt at another illmatic.
and pound for pond lyrically he did passes up illmatic on that album, Just think if it was all DJ premier beats with those lyrics...
The Lost Tapes, would be would be un-officialy tittled illmatic part 2

August 21, 2008 at 9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

youre so intellectual man. i wish i could analyze illmatic as well as you did. i bet youre really fucking hood right

October 3, 2008 at 10:35 PM  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

that's moar like it.

October 9, 2008 at 11:30 AM  

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