Vinyl Vlog 421

Vinyl Vlog 421

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Sunday, 22 March 2020
COLUMN

Nas
Illmatic
(Get on Down Records)

photo: @frangarg

There’s this Key and Peele sketch called Bling Benzy and Da Struggle which perfectly personifies the state of mainstream rap music. In the sketch, the “old” and “new” sound of rap music are represented: the struggle of the old rap, delivered calmly but confidently over a jazz melody deals with social inequalities, the new rap delivered loudly with a screeching voice is about getting titties in your mouth. Neither is right or wrong, of course, but one has to admit the subtlety in newer mainstream rap is kind of gone. It’s more style than substance these days. Maybe I’m just a grump. The problem doesn’t really lie with hip hop, it lies with hip hop that’s on the radio. Those are one of the first spoken lines in Nas’ Illmatic:

“Yo Nas, yo what the fuck is this bullshit on the radio, son?” Nas gets it.

Rap was never my forte, but I’m trying to change that, and like any genre, I’ve developed favorites and still constantly discover new artists. There are those rappers who I think rarely do wrong, whether it’s their main or side projects. Aesop Rock comes to mind. Then there are rappers that take me a while to discover because I’ve learnt to tread lightly with rap recommendations, lest I get burned. But it often leads to my discovery of some great music. Talib Kweli is one. Nas is another.

There should be no doubt that Illmatic ranks as one of the greatest rap albums of all time. And like all great music, it was underappreciated in its time. Like J Dilla. Illmatic sold only 330,000 copies in its first year. Only through the eyes of mainstream music does the sale of “only” that many copies designate one a failure.

Illmatic is said to perfectly represent life in New York in the 90s, and Nas’ world at the time, like he raps early on in “The World is Yours” to Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx and the other boroughs. It’s filled with melodic soul jazz samples like Parliament, Allen Toussaint, and Michael Jackson. This melodic backdrop is in sharp contrast to the rapping style which is fast, wordy, rhythmic and almost uninterrupted. One almost wonders if Nas has learned to rap through his breaths or if they’ve been edited out (but listen close and you can hear them). And of course, the content of the lyrics, both personal and observational, devoid of sensationalism and gloating, put a focus back on the words. It’s a standard that’s maintained throughout this album. Illmatic is such a modest package, just 10 tracks, but packs so much in so little. It’s a shame more rap music isn’t like this. Nas was 20 when he made this album. Let that sink in. I can keep writing, but you really need to just listen to this album

Our coverage of Get on Down records continues, and their inclusion of this album in their reissuing catalog speaks volumes. Rest easy knowing they’re keeping essential classics like this in print. Classics need to be heard on vinyl, and this reissue of Illmatic is the current gold standard. Or should I say silver and gold? That iconic cover, beautifully reproduced, houses a gold and silver vinyl record. Or should I say platinum? It’s just a beautiful package for such an important album.

Illmatic is more than just a great rap album that beautifully represents the best in a musical genre, it raises the bar for rap music and shows just what the art form is capable of.

Get it from Get on Down.

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