Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Nas: Illmatic [Columbia, 1994]
In Mo' Meta Blues, Questlove describes "hip hop's funeral": the battle of the debuts at the Source Awards, when Biggie's Ready to Die buried Nas's Illmatic, already a critical and in-crowd legend, and he watched Nas "wilt in defeat" in the Tommy Hilfiger shirt his manager had just financed. Sez Quest to Black Thought: "He's never going to be the same. You just watch." And he was right. Nas immediately transformed himself into a hit-seeking faux gangsta of depressing conventionality and didn't make another good record for eight years. That still begs the question, however, of exactly how good this spartan effort was and is. Better than I thought at the time for sure--as happens with aesthetes sometimes, the purists heard subtleties principled vulgarians like me were disinclined to enjoy, especially beatmaking where Large Professor along with such fellow New York smoothies as Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and the great Premier convert samples into haunting looped groove elements. Also enjoyable is Nas's ability to transform simple lines like "I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death," "I'm out for presidents to represent me," "The world is yours," and even "One love, one love" into de facto hooks. And my mind tells me that I have to admire how cagily he walks the line between doing the crime and hanging with homies for whom nothing else is "real" even if my heart isn't in it. All that said, however, Ready to Die still gets my vote. A-