I fancy myself somewhat of a hip-hop scholar. I have been listening to hip-hop since 1994, and although my affection for the genre has waned at times, it has always been something I have returned to. At various times, various groups and movements within hip-hop have taken my attention. So it is a bit odd that it wasn't until now that I managed to buy a copy of one of hip-hop's seminal albums, Nas' Illmatic.
After listening to this, an album that most scholars and fans consider one of the best in hip-hop, if not the best, my first reaction was that the album was underwhelming. Does this mean that I was disappointed or thought that the album was hyped? Not at all. I had heard many of Nas' songs before, and had heard the consensus that this album was his best work ever, so I expected it to be good, and it was twice as listenable, in beats and lyrics, as I expected. But still I was underwhelmed, because I could play this album in the background and not even think I was listening to one of the best hip-hop albums ever.
To explain why this album is "underwhelming" but still great, we have to look at some of the other hip-hop greats that came either before or after. Run-DMC became famous for a shouting, rock and roll attack. KRS-One had two revolutionary first albums, first for his grit, and second for his conscious lyrics. Public Enemy took people's attention with a sonic assault and with political rhetoric in and out of their music. NWA and their offshoot projects set trends for violence and also for being from California. The Wu-Tang Clan were recognizable for their unique production and dense esoteric references. Eminem was the first great lyricist who articulated white underclass frustration while writing great pop songs. There are many other examples of rap explosions where an artist staked out dramatically new turf.
And Nas, on this album, did none of these. Nas' production, while artistically great, was not revolutionary or unusual. He doesn't make any great political manifestos. His lyrics, while violent, were hardly shocking for 1994. Nas is a lyricist, but he doesn't use extreme lyrical convolution on this album. Nas also would later become famous for writing songs with a pop-style hook, but on this album, he doesn't put a lot of energy into writing great songs. His vocal presence is understated, almost low-key. As for his lineage, he comes from Queensbridge, which was certainly venerable, but because of that, nothing that people hadn't heard before.
On this short album, then, what we have is 40 minutes divided into 10 songs. The songs mostly deal with the subject of the street life, mixed with tales of MC bravado. They are told in an understated flow between hooks that are servicable but not always attention grabbing. All of this is done by a young man, one of many, who grew up hustling on the streets of Queens. This should be nothing we haven't heard before. And, in some ways, it is exactly what we heard before. It is possible to listen to this album in the background, and to just listen to Nas' voice as another soft jazz instrument. That is what I mean when I say this album is underwhelming.
And yet, at a certain point, one of the lyrics will pique your interest and you will want to hit rewind over and over again, listening to a track and try to guess what Nas is saying. Behind the quiet in Nas' voice, his urgency starts to sink in. Behind the seeming randomness of his lyrics, possible patterns start showing up. Behind the seemingy violence of his lyrics, morality starts to shine forth. The overall narrative structure of the album starts to pull together, but never in a way where you feel like a message is being shoved down your throat. For example, at the beginning of "The World is Yours", seemingly a song about money and Nas' own lyrical prowess, he opens with lines about "watching Gandhi until I'm charged". With that line in mind, the chorus of the song, about who the world belongs to starts to mean more than being a young man's sense of triumph. Many of the lyrics on the album start showing more and more consciousness the more it is listened to.
In the end though, I can't quite put my finger on what is so great about this album. Many other artists have lyrics that keep opening up under examination, and many of those lyrics are on the surface more complicated than what Nas wrote. There is something spiritual in the quality of Nas' voice, that indeed does make this album something greater than a teenager's stories of ego and strife.