In my post about Akinyele’s classic debut album, I mentioned that “unlike Nas, Akinyele lived up to the hype”. While such a comment might seem to be a textbook example of attention-seeking behaviour, it’s a point that I’m more than happy to qualify.
Cast your mind back the first time you caught a sample of Nas’ microphone-melting techniques – whether it was on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ”, MC Serch’s “Back To The Grill” or his contribution to the otherwise woeful Zebrahead soundtrack, “Halftime” (which stands alongside “Time’s Up” and “Come Clean” as the dopest singles of the 90’s), Nasty Nas had your attention. Add to that a cover story in The Source (which was at it’s peak in terms of credibility and influence) which basically declared him to be “the second coming” of Rakim, and an all-star selection of A-list producers, Nas had a lot to live up to. Not to mention the fact that New York had been playing second fiddle to LA for the last couple of years in the wake of Dr Dre/Ice Cube’s commercial dominance, and the expectations were raised to hights which were going to be almost impossible to attain.
Im all fairness, it wasn’t Nas’ fault that the entire East Coast placed the weight of the rap world on his shoulders. He was just trying to make a good album (on second thoughts, based on his frequent egotistical outbursts, he was trying to a make a GREAT album). And for all intents and purposes, he suceeded. However, as Ego Trip magazine noted in their end of ’94 round-up, Illmatic was both the best album of the year AND the biggest dissapointment. The fact that the record consisted of a meagre nine full tracks, two of which had already been released previously, was the first let-down. Of the new material, only “New York State of Mind” and “One Love” matched the vocal intensity of his earlier appearences. Sure, you had moody, introspective efforts like “The World Is Yours” and the more straight-forward brag rap of “One Time For Your Mind”, but where was excitement of “Halftime”? And why the hell would you name a song “Represent”, given that it was the most over-worked cliches of the time? As much as Nas brought a new level of verbal complexity to the game, he also delivered a package that was too subdued for it’s own good. Even his beat choices were at times underwhelming, considering the talent he had access to.
Admittedly, having been raised on Schoolly D, Criminal Minded and Critical Beatdown, I’m expecting a lot. I’m also comparing two very different musical eras, which could be seen as unfair (but hey, “Lifes a Bitch”, isn’t it Nas?). However, the fact that fellow “BBQ” graduate Akinyele was able to make an entertaining, hardcore album with a twisted sense humour and, dare I say it, better beats, with only one producer and a fraction of the budget at his disposal makes Nas’ failings seem even greater. Even to this day, Nas is letting me down. After being given one of the most slamming/hypest/freshest (insert your choice of outdated slang here) beats in recent memory with “Made You Look”, he failed to deliver a vocal performance worthy of the track.
So, while “Illmatic” is undoubtably a great album, it could (and should) have been so much better.
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