No, 'Illmatic' Isn't The Best Rap Album Of All Time
'Illmatic' is possibly the most studied, storied, lauded rap album of all time.
Nas' epochal 1994 debut came to define an entire era, long cited for its complex imagery, brutal street poetry, and its emotional depth.
But this praise has elevated 'Illmatic' to a near unassailable position, something that - in truth - no one piece of art deserves.
Clash has taken part in this conversation - hell, we even spoke to the man himself on the 20th anniversary about the enduring impact 'Illmatic' holds.
But it's time to step away from all that. It's fine to have a personal favourite, it's fine to think - deep down - that 'Illmatic' has flaws, and its fine to admit to yourself that other artists have matched or even superseded Nas' classic debut.
Here's a few personal picks from Clash writers.
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Jay Z - 'Reasonable Doubt' (Robin Murray)
Jay Z and Nas went through a decade-long beef that arguably ranks as one of hip-hop’s greatest set of sly disses, outright insults, and trash talk onslaughts.
It all begins here, though, on Jay Z’s debut album, when Nas ducked out of recording a guest spot on ‘Bring It On’, with producer Ski Beats instead using a sample of the rapper on ‘Dead Presidents II’. Why did Nas fail to turn up to the studio that day? He’s never really said, and we’ll never truly know.
For know in Hove’s corner, though, it’s pretty simple: ‘Reasonable Doubt’ has taken the street poetry of ‘Illmatic’ and amplified it, exceeding Nas’ lauded debut with gritty knowledge and the kind of street hustle only Jay Z could provide.
In the long term, though, the comparisons don’t matter – Jay Z won out, and became so successful he was able to quash the beef once and for all in 2006 when he signs Nas to Def Jam. The two even record together, but ‘Black Republican’ can never match the white heat of their debut LPs.
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DOOM - 'Operation: Doomsday' (Robin Murray)
‘Illmatic’ is a technically magnificent achievement, but for all Nas’ deft couplets, literary allusions, and complex internal rhyme structures the album’s narrative thrust remains the same as many other East Coast rap albums of the era. It’s simple: I live in New York, life is hard, but I remain cool as hell.
Which is why ‘Operation: Doomsday’ is arguably the finer achievement. Having abandoned rap following the death of his brother, (MF) DOOM creates a new outlaw character, one that provokes change by haranguing from the outskirts. It’s a complex record, full of mis-direction and lyrical trickery, often simultaneously revealing and disguising at the same time.
An album fuelled by grief and anger at a cold industry that values money over art, ‘Operation: Doomday’ actually remains a nuanced, often light-hearted experience. An instant cult classic on its 1999 release, it’s light has only increased over the following decades.
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Notorious B.I.G. - 'Ready To Die' (Emma Finamore)
Maybe it’s just because, come on, it’s Biggie, but I’ve always returned to this album more often than ‘Illmatic’. The latter may be a hip-hop masterpiece – a schooling in innovative, nimble production, and in album craft, with not a track out of place – but ‘Ready To Die’ just has more soul.
Maybe it’s faux soul: both albums tell stories of ‘90s New York – Nasir Jones’ Queens and Christopher Wallace’s Brooklyn – but Biggie’s tale is a romantic, colourful rags to riches one, punctuated with humour and a hero that makes it out in the end, while ‘Illmatic’ is relentless in its (albeit pristinely delivered) bleak mood.
I never really smile or weep listening to Nas’ perfect record, while Biggie’s flows have me floored with laughter, sobbing – see ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ – dancing – see ‘Juicy’ – or just plain in awe of his wordsmithery and dexterity. Who else could come up with: "Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this.”
For years listeners have wondered who that “other MC” is on hardcore cut ‘Gimme The Loot’…but guess what, it’s just Biggie again, flexing his vocal prowess. ‘Illmatic’ might be the record you choose with your head, but ‘Ready To Die’ is an album of the heart.
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Kanye West - 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' (Will Rosebury)
It’s pretty undeniable that 'Illmatic' has the best ‘rapping’ on any album ever. I’ll give you that. But it’s a headphone listen, an album you put on one or twice a year because you want to hear raw lyricism.
Is it a go-to listen in the car? Can you put it on at a party? What track gets played in a club? Which song gets you emotional? Does it incorporate a myriad of styles? No.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has it all. If we are talking production, Nas' debut is definitely a masterpiece – with some of the best producers ever providing their greatest work. But it sounds like 1994, granted it’s an incredible musical time-capsule, however it’s very much of its time. Okay, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' isn’t even a decade old but it hasn’t aged a day - in fact, it still sounds like the future.
The key difference is that 'Illmatic' set the bar for all future rap music, and 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' raised that bar to a height no-one has come close to since.
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