by Chris Estey
33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 22: Nas’ Illmatic by Matthew Gasteier
The only thing that would have made #64 in 33 1/3’s series of little books on big albums better would have been an exclusive interview with the subject of the book, Nas. The album in question, Illmatic, is an inarguable choice though — from the cover art (the portrait of the artist as a very young man), to the future-forward evolution of the music form it led, to the timeless high quality multi-syllabic rhyming, weaving complicated rhythms around those still-borrowed-from beats — author Matthew Gasteier hit it square.
Nas has been controversial in his output since the generational-jump early 90s release, but no one I know disputes how this stoned and serious anti-fantasia put new autobiographical impulse into Notorious B.I.G. (Ready To Die), and semiotically sculpted the sort of self-mythologizing Jay Z would later profit even bigger from. A relentless innovator with artistic wanderlust, Nas created skins he left behind for others to fill. This inspired perhaps messianic-paranoia by the time he recorded 1999’s “Hate Me Now” (its crucifixion-based video pissing a whole lot of people off), but this was probably bound to happen with someone who rapped to Rolling Stone, “My soul’s been rapping since the first man walked in Africa.” Boston-based Gasteier makes a convincing case that Nas is an spiritual incarnation of hip-hop, not just a musician who infused it.
If you’re enjoying rap albums that are tight, without the greedy spilling over of guests, that is cohesive even in a genre that’s capable of pretty much any kind of texture or statement, Illmatic is the album where this all began. Gasteier briefly mentions that while he personally couldn’t immediately identify with its brief, brutal scenarios (being white and not of the same culture), he could still fall in love with its soul. Unlike a lot of 33 1/3 writers, he avoids telling us the details of how that happened — he states “This is not a book about me.” It is a study on the creation of a history-changing aesthetic through a deliberate collection of persona and sound. Illmatic wasn’t the rock-baited 80s anthems of Public Enemy, the gangster pop of Dr. Dre or 50 Cent. It conveys the energy of street corners in the New York slums Nas was raised in to a society just when it was hungry to hear their stories. Or maybe Nas, with his unique style and editing skills, made them lust for them.
Gasteier is more concerned with how Nas hit it but never quit it, facing a decrease in popularity but never giving up productivity or experimentation. He uses this trajectory to note that black music became broadly American music, in how Nas became a monument to this change for hip-hop. This doesn’t mean he endorses the idea that the imagery in its songs are a corner on reality, or that Nas fumbled later on with songs like “Sweet Dreams,” including elements he at one time avoided. But he does make a strong primary assertion that, from evidence on 1994’s Illmatic, Nas became the greatest emcee of all time.