Hard core. That’s what this is. Hard fucking core. A contender for best-ever metal album against a contender for best-ever rap album. Just look at those covers – AC/DC’s all-black tribute to their recently-deceased former lead singer Bon Scott, and a bad-ass picture of Nas as a kid superimposed over the bad-ass neighbourhood that defined and formed him – New York’s Queensbridge. Scary. Dark. Iconic.
When Australia’s AC/DC lost their great lead singer to “acute alcohol poisoning” in 1980, they chose not to throw in the towel but to immediately find an arguably better lead singer (Brian Johnson) and make an album about partying and screwing your ass off, and even included a song called “Have a Drink on Me”. While they presumably learned no lessons about the merits of moderation, they clearly learned huge lessons about how to rock. Back in Black is near-perfect metal. Monster riffs, slammin’ guitar and choruses designed for 20,000 people to bellow at the top of their lungs until the arena roof blows off. It worked so well every album they’ve made since has sounded the same, but not as good.
The downside is the lyrics, which are clever in a metal sort of way, but mostly dumb as dirt. “Givin’ the Dog a Bone” is not the most thoughtful way to describe a blowjob, and I could really do without lines like “don’t you struggle, don’t you fight” in “Let Me Put My Love Into You”. I suppose we shouldn’t judge 1980 lyrics through the #MeToo lens of 2018. Still…yikes.
Nas, on the other hand, has a lot more on his mind. Illmatic is all about growing up in the largest public housing development in North America. Opening with an audio clip from a movie, the album is cinematic from front to back. He makes you feel what it’s like growing up in Queensbridge, rapping about gang warfare, the drug trade, poverty, and friends and rivals who have come and gone. We get reports like this: “But yo guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/ Jerome’s niece on her way home from Jones Beach.”
No wonder he declares “I never sleep – ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Nas was only 20 when he gave this masterpiece to the world, but he’d seen more and lived more than most people do in 80 years.
Another thing about Illmatic – it’s surprisingly pretty. With little flourishes like jazz trumpet thrown in, it’s atmospheric, smooth and melodic – a pleasure to listen to. Rap has never really been my genre, but every so often a rap album comes along that grabs my attention and won’t let go. Illmatic is one of those. Stunning. And smarter than Australia’s party boys.
WINNER: Nas, Illmatic (3 points)
Next week’s battle – #25: Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987) vs. Sublime, Sublime (1996)