But there was a next level of rap, what now feels to me more like "real" rap, which was much more unadorned and minimalist, like A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, that was more difficult to love at first. It wasn't until 2008 that I really started understanding why '94's Illmatic was such a masterpiece, and it's now in a toss-up with a few others as my favorite rap album ever.
Illmatic is wildly unlike most other hip-hop albums of the era. It's comparatively short, under 40 minutes, while the major albums of artists like Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and so many others were sprawling affairs that nearly maxed out CD length, and included numerous skits and segue tracks that diverted from the key material. Illmatic also doesn't feature any major guest stars, pop hooks, or tracks aimed at crossover success. It's just a brisk, bleak, minimal, ten-song affair about the streets, with each song mostly surviving on a single repeated sample that allows the beat and vocal to do all of the heavy lifting. If stars like 2Pac and Biggie were the popular network juggernauts like CSI, Nas was The Wire -- the prestigious, low-budget alternative that thrived on grit, realism, and empathy for the fully formed figures it portrayed.
"Represent" is my favorite song on the album, maybe in part because it has the most obvious hook of any of the tracks, but also because of the rawness of opening with the words "straight up shit is real, and any day could be your last in the jungle." It's not like this was the first rap song I'd heard discuss the mortality problem of growing up in the streets, but while most of the others romanticized that life, Nas makes it sound more like a CNN piece, and the somber keyboard melody that keeps methodically repeating ends up feeling funerary in this context.
A lot of the rap music I still love is in the Jay-Z "Empire State of Mind" style, which are essentially pop songs with rapped vocals. But stuff like what Nas was doing in '94 continues to grow in my appreciation, because it truly is its own thing. While listening to a lot of rap can feel a little too uncomfortably like contrived tourism for white rock fans, Illmatic never does. That's probably why it took me so long to appreciate it. Until you can stop being an actual tourist, there'll never be anything for you in Illmatic. But when you're finally ready to move in, the real genius of the place will stand revealed.
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