If this week had a theme, it would be “Austin Gerth is right, and I’m wrong”. I started watching the TV show Twin Peaks a few days ago, and I was totally disinterested in it. I had seriously decided that I didn’t care for the show and was going to watch exactly five episodes in order to give it a fair chance to hook me. I afforded Twin Peaks this extra opportunity to pique my interest (a twin pique, if you will) only because I knew Austin Gerth liked it, and he has a tendency to be right about everything. Sure enough, I was captivated by the end of the third episode.
So you’d think I’d have learned my lesson when I sat down to listen to this week’s album, Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout. I was going to give it a fair shake, because when Austin says it’s good, it probably is. But oh man, that first listen was a slog. It was dreamy and lacked punch, full of synth that suggested it was best left in the 80s. The best I could say was that it would have be good to do paperwork to. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t interested.
But, I realized, this also pretty much how I felt about Twin Peaks, which had captured me with how dreamy and under-spoken it was. So I put in noise-cancelling headphones and listened once more, this time with intent and care. And Goddammit all if Austin wasn’t right again. In the very first moments of the album, “Faron Young” are somewhere between Kerouac and Camus, searching less for meaning than for experience while a sick banjo accompanies in the background.
I said earlier that I originally thought Steve McQueen was dreamy and lacks punch. I still think that; after listening to “Appetite” several times, I notice that the chorus has a buoyancy to it. Where many artists hit the drops hard and running, Prefab Sprouts stays light on its toes, perhaps even staying in the air. This is a motif both in the sound and lyrics: Steve McQueen is transient and searching, never truly coming to a rest, even if it feels relaxed. The album is lively and changes mood readily: from floating, such as in “Desire As” to the more pointed and lamenting “When Love Breaks Down”. The album at times relishes in hedonism, as it does when it calls itself a slave to appetite or in the line that could be the thesis of the album:
“Desire as a sylph figured creature who changes her mind”.
Yet it then seems to admonish itself in “Blueberry Pies”, acknowledging the danger of this ceaseless journey:
“And your being good
Only depresses me, knowing how oddly I’m behaving
Hello stranger, the stranger I’ve become, I’m an air raid”
Steve McQueen deserves so much more than I was willing to give it at first. Each subsequent listen reveals new layers of artistry in this beautiful album with each song a variant and new perspective on the same theme.
While this is admittedly a bit of a cop-out, I’d like to start a precedent of the person who picks the album writing a concise justification for that selection instead of an actual review. (I now realize writing this before anyone else posted would’ve made more sense.)
I chose this album for two reasons.
1. As Austin pointed out, Illmatic is considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time. I thought you all would find the album enjoyable or intriguing for that reason.
2. Based on conversations with some of my students, there is a growing number of rappers who are popular because of their weird hair and Intagram accounts, not because of their rapping. This pushed me to revisit this classic album known for its complex, poignant lyricism.
I’ve have a lot of fun reading what you all wrote. Thank you for a great week.
First, a brief note: because I am lazy/awful ima do this bitch Buzzfeed style because from what I understand 1-Little Content 2-List Style 3-? 4-$$$. This week each category will have a brief explanation so you know where I am coming from. Alright let’s hit it.
Banger of the Week:
(This is the one you want to blast through the stock speakers in your Taurus.)
N.Y. State of Mind-This JAM has it all. The beat makes my head move as soon as it starts even if I’m not really paying attention. It works on a sub-conscious level. The melodic part that sounds like low keys makes this whole beat for me, the other elements just frame the melody so there is never doubt as to where the beat is. This song doesn’t require attention, it draws it. “N.Y. State of Mind” is a perfect example of how the correct pairing of style, flow and a beat creates something that sounds complete. I can’t really think of anything that, if added, would make this a better song. Lyrically speaking it does a great job of giving us the setting and mood for the album we are about to explore.
(This is just the line I liked best, usually these make me chuckle the first time I hear them. It doesn’t even need to rhyme I guess.)
You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/
That’s like Malcolm X catching the Jungle Fever
Right in the Feels:
(This is sort of the slow jam category. I feel like slow jams don’t get enough love but they are just as important as the bangers folks.)
One Love-The intro sets the stage for a pretty sad story. We’re hearing a letter from Nas to a younger member of the crew, perhaps a younger brother, giving him an update from home while he is locked up. There isn’t really any good news. The track then transforms into a general love jam from one man to another. In an album that feels dated and difficult for someone like me to connect with at times, this one still feels really relevant. FEEELS
Beat of the Week:
(For me the quality of a hip-hop song completely depends on my perceived quality of the beat. Here I will break down the beat that MADE a song for me.)
Halftime-From the start I know this base groove is only going one place: the TIPPITY top baby. I mean that driving line relatively high up the bass guitar neck is just so dope. Any song that uses that as a foundation is gonna be rad. I love the hook in this song, I mean its nothin’ fancy but what more could you ask for? We get a lead in from the baseline moving up then outta nowhere HORNS! A sexy little brassy trumpet melody paired with the female backing voice singing “ay” on a descending line and it just works so well for me. Over that stuff the echoing hype man “right right right right” along with Nas reminding me what time it is just fits right in the melody. The party sounds underneath make this a perfect mid 90’s hook for me. This beat slaps.
Honorable Mention: One Time 4 Your Mind
I Don’t Get It:
(I’m not saying this is a bad song, I’m just saying I don’t get it.)
Represent-It’s just too hard. With a really spacious beat that has little movement and no melodic hook to bring it back I don’t think it fits with the rest of the record. The listening experience is jarring. On a different record (four years later) it could be a solid B-side. Here I just don’t get it.
Hook Line n’ Sinker:
(My favorite hook from the week’s record.)
Life’s a Bitch- No matter how many times I listen to this hook it all comes back to 1 simple element: execution. It is perfect. If 100 people tried to perform that hook I don’t know if I would like any of the better. It completely captures the attitude of the whole song. Also this bitch was stuck in my head all week.
(A short album summary)
Illmatic falls into a fascinating transition period for east coast rap and hip-hop in general. This can be seen in the gradient of song styles that appear on the album. From “Memory Lane” to “Represent” songs on this record could be at home in albums anytime from ’91 to ’01. I dig it. The variation makes it an album that flies by and seems to offer something new every time it’s played.
I’m glad Alex picked Illmatic for our first album.
I’ve never really listened to Nas before, even though I’ve been aware of his and Illmatic’s reputation for years. My reasons for not listening have been nonsensical: I always thought Nas had kind of a stupid looking face, and I thought Illmatic‘s (iconic) cover art was boring and gave off a vibe that was way too this-is-a-rap-album (as if we couldn’t tell).
The 2003 book edition of Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although deeply flawed, was maybe the single most influential book in my life between the ages of 13 and 18. Illmatic is album number 400 in that book, I think. It took me several years to go from dweeby classic rock boy to tentative hip-hop enthusiast, yet even once I did, taking Rolling Stone’s canon as my guide, Illmatic was not one of the rap albums from the list I found myself naturally drawn to. It wasn’t that I thought I would dislike it; there’s just so much music out there to try that sometimes the ways we decide whether to give something a shot or not are completely arbitrary.
Even as I grew familiar with Illmatic’s towering reputation over the years—as a perennial candidate for greatest hip-hop album of all time, as a standard by which any potential classic in the genre is measured, as basically the Great Gatsby of rap, I still neglected to actually listen to the thing. I was instead seduced by things like Action Bronson’s “raps about food” schtick, and Cam’Ron.
It wasn’t just that I was stubborn. Nas’ whole steez struck me as too normal. He seemed like a guy who would be, at best, really good at rapping in sort of a meat-and-potatoes, conventional way. Nas has no point of view, no cool gimmick. He keeps it real. (Important sidenote: At this point I’m still basing this assessment entirely on Nas’ image, and on the way he gets talked about, rather than any experience of his music. But as evidence of the power image and critical discourse can hold, I submit that I stand by my whole knee-jerk, pre-listening assessment to Nas’ shit; all my assumptions are correct. It’s my reaction to Nas, now that I’ve heard him, that’s been less predictable.)
Enough background, though, because that shit’s boring.
The first time I heard Nas was in the soundtrack to the 2014 movie Dope, which includes “The World Is Yours,” off Illmatic. I’m not exaggerating that much when I say that “The World Is Yours” is the best part of Dope. I hunted the song down online when I got home from the theater. When I found out it was a Nas song, I knew I should probably listen to Illmatic. But I still didn’t.
I finally listened to Illmatic last Sunday and it sorta blew my mind.
When you’re approaching an album that’s hyped as the best ever in its genre for the first time, you go in expecting that it might not be able to live up to the reputation.
Illmatic pretty much does, though. It’s neither overrated nor underrated. It’s one of the most “rated” albums I’ve ever heard. Is it the indisputable greatest rap album of all time? Eh… I don’t know. I don’t think that’s a question that has an answer.
In fact, I think one of the things that makes Illmatic so excellent—its brevity—could be seen as a strike against it in the “greatest rap album” debate. Because rap’s period of greatest popularity and cultural saturation coincided with the CD era in the ‘90s, there is a strong tradition of classic hip-hop albums being sprawling affairs, packed to the gills with skits, guest features, and posse cuts. The obvious downside for putting an album together that way is that a lot of hip-hop albums are padded with filler. But the upside is that really great rap albums are able to conjure whole worlds for the listener to get lost in over the course of many listens.
Illmatic, despite its considerable merits, doesn’t really do that.
What Illmatic does do, however, is impressive on its own terms.
My favorite track on the album is still the first one I heard, “The World Is Yours,” because “The World Is Yours” has an incredible beat. A lot of hip-hop production was still pretty spare in the mid-90s, but Pete Rock’s beat on “The World Is Yours” is lush as hell. And it’s catchy. The recurring chant of “Who’s world is this? It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine” is a whimsically perfect hook, and it’s possible to read it multiple ways: Is it a confident rhetorical question, or is the repetition a mark of insecurity?
When it comes to hip-hop, I tend to be more of a “beats first” listener. I don’t always appreciate pure rapping technique on first listen because my brain is a little too slow for the quickness of the language. (You’ll notice I’m not exactly talking a ton about lyrics here—for what it’s worth, I like what I’ve been picking up.) Some older rap tires me out by focusing too much on the lyrics and not giving me enough detail in the production to satisfy me. I worried that would be the case for Illmatic, but I was wrong.
“Life’s a Bitch” is another standout for me. AZ does a great job on his guest verse, but it’s the production once again that seals the deal for me: there’s a simple repeating chord change played on an electric piano laid over what sounds like a looped drone on a cheap synth, and the way the subtly snapping, propulsive drums push against the melodic stasis of those keyboard parts makes the song sound as if it’s being beamed in from a dream state. To toss the chorus “Life’s a bitch and then you die” into that sonic environment is a beautiful bit of contrast.
One of the things that makes Illmatic great is actually one of the things that I used as an excuse not to listen to it for years: it succeeds in a totally boring way. Nas is a brilliant meat-and-potatoes rapper. He keeps it real. The thing is, I didn’t realize how good that could be, how much I would actually want that type of greatness in my life, till I actually put the album on and listened to it straight through.
Illmatic lives up to the high expectations engendered by my years of hearing about it without hearing it because it encapsulates all of hip-hop’s essentials. It’s got a really good rapper rapping at the top of his game over a batch of consistently exciting beats sourced from a group of producers who are almost all now hip-hop legends. It does all this with ruthless efficiency.
A Tribe Called Quest crystallized the essential qualities of classic hip-hop with the title of their 1996 album Beats, Rhymes & Life. On Illmatic, Nas and his interlocutors do a pretty good job of embodying all three.
Verdict: Illmatic’s pretty pocket, and it slaps.
Favorite tracks: “The World Is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park),” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”
I am trying to think of a way to sum up the most prominent feelings I have on Illmatic. The subject matter of the album take us inside the life of growing up in New York City in the early 90’s, something I never have or never will experience. So as a preface, personal relatability to this album is fairly low.
In a time where Reagan’s anti-black, pro-incarceration policies still ran rampant, Nas enlightens us with tales of dealing with discriminatory cops, his streets filled with crack, murderous cops, and troubled youth. “N.Y. State of Mind” tells of kids with guns, crack addicts, and how nothing is like New York city. “Life’s a Bitch” offers a theme that still resonates with today’s rappers: get paid while your here cause who knows long that’ll be. “Represent” is a trans-generational anthem documenting police brutality and standing up for one’s hood.
Growing up in one of the whitest suburbs in Minnesota, I cannot relate to the situation Nas grew up in. But there are similarities between his experiences then and the world we live in now. Police brutality against African Americans is still a large problem in this country. One could even argue we have taken a step backwards in recent years. The crack epidemic (Thanks Reagan…) is comparable to the heroine epidemic we are dealing with now. Nas’ Illmatic and its themes and lyrics are still relevant 22 years later, and continue to have a lasting impact on the hip hop community.
Every track has a memorable beat and good producing, culminating in a well-polished album. Lyrically, Nas has rhymes that this generation can compare to Kendrick Lamar, but their flow is very different. Nas’ flow is not flashy in the slightest, but is perfectly timed to mesh with the beat behind him.
Overall, I enjoyed this album. It gets a little tiring near the end, leaving listeners clamoring for something closer to the first 5 tracks. It has those classic 90’s beats that everyone enjoys. The lyrics are potent and raw, finding relevance even today. I would recommend this album to anyone looking for a good album with historical significance that has held up over time.
Favorite Song: “Life’s a Bitch”
Favorite Lyric: “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing, The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh” – “Life’s a Bitch”
Released in 1994, Illmatic feels like a relic from an era when rap had more to say than whether or not an app made a million a minute (I hear it did). I’m not going to presume to know enough about rap to try and place Illmatic in its historical context, though I’d point out the contrast between this and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle from the previous year; the albums have similar chill vibes and stoner/gangster content, but where Snoop revels in this activity (an accomplishment in its own right), Nas explores and even waxes poetic about institutional racism, the absurdity of gang violence, and the very purpose of art in his world. Truly, Illmatic is an album of a modern poet.
One of the most common themes of Illmatic is the way that death is held at bay by music, as he notes in “The World Is Yours”:
“The beats make me falling/ I keep falling, but never falling six feet deep.”
This is the refrain in the first half of the album: these rhymes are personal salvation. But by the end of Illmatic, Nas’s raps are redemptive for his crew as well, and potentially can save the world. The final line of the album suggests the these lyrics should be locked up if the status quo is to be maintained and “murder cops” are allowed to run rampant.
Regardless of lyrical content, Illmatic is right up my alley musically. Its laid back, its got a full sound and revolves around the vocals, instead of trying to distract us from them (I’d target Kanye again here, but I don’t want to draw attention to my lack of rap chops)
I think that the album loses steam in the second half. “One Love” is a rich, savoring exploration of street life, but it’s followed by the deliberately plodding”One Time 4 your Mind”, and the two really dilute the drive of the album.
You also have to really appreciate the contributions of Nas’s crew to the album. Usually you’d expect them to talk shit during the intros and hooks, but AZ actually contributes one of my favorite verses in “Life’s a Bitch”.
Simply put, Illmatic is a lyrical marvel, and NY State of Mind is a special treasure that I’m putting on my “Chill Shit” playlist.