It’s a ‘grower’

The other day I was embroiled in a debate with two esteemed bloggers which brought up the topic of revisionism in music, more specifically in the case of Nas’ debut and sophomore releases. This debate is significant as, much like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Gaye’s What’s Going On or even Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner, Nas’ debut Illmatic operates as the manifesto and distillation of an entire genre.

Illmatic was not the first rap album I bought, neither was it my favourite album for a fairly long time after I had heard it. I remember my friend burning me a copy when I was sixteen. The album, it goes without saying is almost beyond reproach and I was excited to hear it. On the same day I reverted back to playing Nas’ 2001 ‘comeback’ album Stillmatic.

However, after around a year spent with the album the words of all the songs began to resonate with me on a personal level, and the production, rather than being dull, became nuanced. I realised that I had revised my initial opinion; the album was a ‘grower’. I suddenly got all the accolades and reverence heaped upon the album and it remains my favourite album in any genre till this day. This concept of a ‘grower’ is one that often pops up in the vocabulary of those who have ever spent any of their free time reading someone else’s opinion on a piece of music.

Is a shift in opinion due to a differing viewpoint provided by someone respected? Partly I think, but not necessarily negatively. A lot of people who spend excess amounts of time listening to music also spend a great deal of their time reading about it, the reason being (for me anyway) that the writer might flag up things about a piece of music which you might not have been aware of before, enriching the experience. On the other hand, a dextrous writer could arguably convince a crowd of anything. Yet, part of the issue with this lies, ironically (when considering a grower) with the ADD nature of the internet and the need to create or ride a wave. As a consequence, young artists have been torn down twice as quickly as they have risen up through no fault of their own.

The above argument, combined with a person’s personal feelings about music can – and often independent of the other – cause an album to grow on you as you appreciate things you hadn’t noticed in a piece of music before. This is key as often we all tend to pay little attention to something on first or even multiple glances. Despite the snap culture of the internet a great deal of serious, more measured discussion exists that holds a generous amount of sway.

Thus I didn’t hear Nas’ follow up, It Was Written, until I turned 18. Following up a classic album is a tough task managed by few and has broken many a promising career. I had read heaps about IWW and the resultant critical backlash amidst Nas’ commercial success; he had sold out, or that was the popular school of thought at the time. Yet, before I listened to the album in its entirety I had been a big Lupe Fiasco fan. Lupe was one of the first “big names” to really encourage a critical revision of IWW, in Lupe’s eyes, the album was the greatest shit ever. Lupe’s outspoken nature, although having ushered him into trouble (most recently in a spat with legendary producer Pete Rock), may have helped encourage a more outspoken revision of IWW. Lupe’s words have helped grant a generation of rap fans in their 20s the license to enjoy IWW without the context of Illmatic looming over it like a disparaging Father. It also granted those who had written of the album, inside and outside of publications, a chance to revise their initial opinions on the LP. Ultimately with the aid of the Internet, Rap music (and almost any genre of music) has been opened to open and honest discussion where different strains of thoughts can gain their own followings.

At the time the idea that IWW could be >>>>> Illmatic was nothing short of blasphemous to me, but I was intrigued as to why it was so poorly received at the time. Simply, between the 1994 release of Illmatic and the 1997 release of IWW, the Hip Hop landscape had changed irrevocably. P Diddy’s brand of sleek rap infused with R & B had taken over; he had Biggie rhyming on yachts and for himself had adopted the famed “shiny suit”. So it was in this context that IWW was released. When I listened to it I was shocked to discover that the album, from the perspective of a fresh 18 year old, had no commercial concessions in the way that we understand them. The songs that bore the brunt of this judgement was the ‘conscious rap’ of “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)” which featured Lauryn Hill and, “Street Dreams” which utilised a Eurythmics sample and featured Nas in a pastel suit.

What is tricky to measure is whether the music itself aged well or whether today’s commercial concessions make those such as the ones a young Nas made seem more palatable. Today, both songs might still hold some commercial appeal but would still be considered wholly as Hip Hop music. In fact, on the latter song Nas’ recounts drug capers, a feature of the last great Hip Hop trend, Mafioso rap. IWW along with Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Biggie’s Life After Death was one of the crowning achievements of this sub-genre. Where Illmatic was personal and gritty, IWW was polished, and technically precise.

Furthermore, hindsight has and probably will deservedly enshrine IWW as at least Nas’ second greatest album. Nas’ Ethering of Jay-Z in 2001 (I assume) charged up fans and critics alike in their reception to Stillmatic (if not because of the title alone), yet, as I  and many have grown up it is clear that Nas has probably released better whole albums post-Stillmatic, even aside from IWW. The internet has opened the field of play for revision such as this, analysis with an existential context aside from the then; although we might never wholly agree again on a lot of music the internet has and will continue to help save a lot of gems from times past.

When discussing Nas’ debut and sophomore effort, Deen and HL (the two aforementioned bloggers) both pointed to the very strong argument that Nas was a better rapper on IWW than he was on his debut. Aside from the singles, Nas spends the album delivering cinematic narratives, with a staggering level of detail. It is an album that features some of his greatest achievements and at its best the album is at least equal or perhaps even better than his debut. The problem, for me lies in the album’s slight inconsistencies.

More subjectively IWW, while superior in more than a few ways, lacks the defining nature of Illmatic. The fact that IWW was heavily influenced by OB4CL does not of itself shear IWW of its sheen but it does as consequence lack the genre defining nature of Illmatic. A great deal of the strength of his debut is the detail to which a life shared by many is chronicled so personally, it is an album that not only speaks but does so with authority and subtlety in equal measure. For me, it is the album that grants Nas a lot of his sagely kind of mythos; on his debut he is the all too quickly aged youngster.

There is no definitive answer in any debate on music and I could point to some of the bad hooks on IWW or a few songs which don’t quite share the same level of quality (Black Girl Lost, Street Dreams), but the debate remains subjective. That said this kind of debate is where the internet provides its innate strengths. People from the USA can debate on the exact same topic with someone from Ukraine (keep it topical for the tags) instantaneously. The scope of times, places and cultures provides a potential for dizzying amounts of opinion. The internet has provided us with the ability to at least acquire a greater range of perspectives and thus appreciation*. Maybe one day yanks will ‘get’ Boy In Da Corner or even decide to sample some music from Ghetts…

*Hopefully the same can be said for critics, Rolling Stone gave Midnight Marauders two stars (which they revised up to four…) and Picthfork scored Nas’ Untitled as a 2.7 while rap publications like Hip Hop DX throw out 5/5s for fun :/.