11.7.08

Desperation

I want to review Nas' new album, Untitled, but I don't think I can do it without discussing a dynamic in hip-hop that's been on my mind for a while. I want to talk about first albums. This'll lay the groundwork for a review, to come later, of Nas' new album "Untitled." For now, take a look at this list of my ten favorite hip-hop albums and the discussion below. I'll drop back next week to review Untitled.

Wu-Tang Clan - 36 Chambers: Enter the Wu-Tang
The Gza - Liquid Swords
Raekwon - Only Built for Cuban Linx
Ghostface - Supreme Clientele
Madvillain (MF Doom) - Madvillainy
Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt
Nas - Illmatic
Cam'ron - Purple Haze
Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die
Eric B. & Rakim - Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Of those ten albums, six of them are the artist's/group's first album; 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Cuban Linx, Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic, and Ready to Die. Some of these guys rapped other places before those albums dropped. But the Wu-Tang affiliated albums were the first under Rza's five-year plan. Nas appeared on a couple stray tracks that got him hyped, but Illmatic was the breakthrough. Same with Jay. Same with Biggie.

There's not much revolutionary about including those albums on a top ten list. They are in the Pantheon of great hip-hop albums. You can argue their respective ranks, but no one worth their salt is gonna push any of those six albums far from top-ten to twenty status. And when it comes to Nas and Illmatic, you move that album out of the top three at your own peril.

No one came closer to perfecting the New York hip-hop sound than Nas on Illmatic. Premier's beat on "New York State of Mind" dripped with the cacophony of the city and Nas probably earned the title "Greatest Rapper Ever" by the end of his first verse on that track. But since Illmatic, writers have spilled plenty ink on Nas' inability to return to that pinnacle. Nine tracks (plus an intro skit) and Nas had set the bar higher than he'd ever be able to reach again, the story goes.

I would argue, furthermore, that no one on that list of first albums equalled those works with any of their subsequent releases. Life After Death was solid, but I'd take "Machine Gun Funk" and Ready to Die over it any day. Raekwon has undoubtedly not come close to Cuban Linx since - we'll wait and see what Cuban Linx II offers, if it ever drops. Wu-Tang Forever and The W are solid albums, but not the gritty, raw, sublime masterpiece that is 36 Chambers. Liquid Swords is unparalleled in GZA's catalog and in my mind sits not far from Illmatic.

As for Jay, this tends to be the diciest claim. A lot of people put The Blueprint above Reasonable Doubt, and I could have seen the justification until Jay's "Takeover" was utterly obliterated by Nas' retaliatory "Ether" and "Got Yourself A Gun" and, for me, proved The Blueprint's braggadocio hollow and shut Jay's mouth. Reasonable Doubt was Jay at his coldest: "Nine to five is how to survive, I ain't trying to survive/ I'm trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot."

Are all these first albums at the top of my list coincidence? I don't think so. All of those albums partake of what I call "experiential rap" - rap that is born from the artists' observations and feelings as opposed to something didactic or "conscious hip-hop" (in the Tribe Called Quest/ De La Soul vein of the time, though I never liked that term because, what?, Nas was unconscious?).

I've accused Nas before of having laid the groundwork - but in superlative aesthetic terms - for the dynamic that is now pervasive in hip-hop, what Nas himself calls "microwave rap." Rap that people use to feed themselves and their families; pre-packaged, caricaturized drug rap like 50 Cent, Young Jeezy...

Great experiential hip-hop requires desperation as its motor. Biggie said, when asked why he started rapping, that he just wanted to get out of the streets, or, more famously; "because the streets is a short stop/ either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot." Nas looked back, in a Vibe Magazine interview from 2005 on the tenth anniversary of Illmatic, and stated that he couldn't believe what his life was in 1995 as a 21 year-old kid, that he knew he had to take his future on his own shoulders or he wouldn't survive. Rap is at its most poignant, emotive, is most bared to the world when, as Jay says on the intro to Reasonable Doubt's "Can I Live," it has "nothing to lose, everything to gain. So we offer you, well, we offer our lives. What do you bring to the table?"

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