I recently listened to ‘90’s hip-hop pioneers Nas and Jay-Z for the first time. Yeah, I know. In all my 19 years I’ve never heard the infamous Ether record from Stillmatic or the album that holds songs that contribute heavily to black culture, like Reasonable Doubt. Granted both projects were dropped before I was born, but I felt an obligation to educate myself on music that crafted my culture. It’s like being black and not watching Friday or Love & Basketball. You don’t have to like it, just do it for the culture I dedicated an entire Wednesday night to listening to what’s been called classics - non stop, back to back.
I’m not sure what I expected but I definitely listened with the anticipation of hearing something mind blowing. I mean, there are dozens of articles from Complex to Pitchfork that label “Illmatic” as a masterpiece that changed hip-hop forever. As I listened to the hard core hip-hop rhymes of Nas in Illmatic, I felt as if I was listening to a story. Which, as someone who’s been dubbed as liking “smart rap” you’d think I’d like. And I did, but I didn’t understand. It felt like when all of Twitter keeps raving about a show and when you finally give in and watch an episode you find that it’s just O.K.
Then I switched over to Reasonable Doubt. Though I had never heard the entire body of work before, I was familiar enough to know that this was the album that many call Jay-Z’s best. Or at least their favorite. So once again I had unthinkingly placed a lot of expectations on this album. Actually, I placed a large expectation on Jay-Z period because he’s managed to transcend time and stay active on the scene for over 20 years. As I listened Jay-Z’s debut album, a few songs stood out to me but once again the last song felt like a cliffhanger.
You’d think that after listening to both projects one could answer the age old question of who’s better, or at least pick a side on one of hip-hop’s biggest debates. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.The answer is not black and white. These gentlemen are both New York rappers, raised in the same era, sharing similar stories over classic hip hop sounds. Listeners do the same head bop, shimmy, and stank face to both albums. The side people choose can be boiled down to who they rock with more as an individual.
In the end, music wins. There’s no better or worse, there’s opinion. And whether you agree with it or not, time has made these albums classics. These projects not only transformed the sound of music but also the way it was created and interpreted. Both Nas and Jay-Z made strides in the music industry. It’s best to get hip on the history before hopping in any conversation about music because these two are bound to come up.
This was originally published November 2017.