Illmatic

Roll down the windows on a summer Saturday and ride down New York's Broadway — from the Bronx, where hip-hop was created, through Harlem and the Village, where it's criticized and consumed, and down to Wall Street, where hit singles turn into big dollars for the companies that market it. You'll find out who is the Man of the moment. As vibrantly urban a street as exists in America, Broadway insists on being up-to-the-minute hip. At the sound of the tone the Man will be Wu-Tang Clan. Bong.

 

On Broadway, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) remains as hot as August concrete and Doggystyle as cold as ice — meaning that Dre and Snoop will not be returning as the Man. But the race ain't over, as a horde of major albums have recently been released or are slated for the last half of '94: Ice Cube and Dr. Dre's Helter Skelter, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's The Main Ingredients, Coolio's It Takes a Thief and Shyheim's AKA the Rugged Child, as well as albums from Smif n' Wessun, Redman, 2Pac, the Lady of Rage, the Method Man, Rakim and a solo album by A Tribe Called Quest's Phife. But they'll all be chasing the MC with a street buzz so loud it's threatening to silence the Death Row bass thump on Broadway: Nas.

The humming began once the hottest producers in New York — DJ Premier, Pete Rock, the Large Professor, Q-Tip, L.E.S. — completed their parts on Illmatic, and Nas stepped to their tracks (many smooth and mellow, a few hard and biting, all mid- to low-tempo) and vaulted himself into the elite group of MCs. Not because of an ultrabutter flow and boldly distinctive voice like Q-Tip or Slick Rick but because of sharp articulation, finely detailed lyrics and a controlled tone reminiscent of Rakim. Those sounds and Nas' no-nonsense urban tales pair Ill's every beautiful moment with its harsh antithesis. From "One Love," Nas' letter to homies in jail — "So, stay civilized/Time flies/Though, incarcerated, your mind dies/I hate it when your moms cries/It kinda makes me wanna murder" — to the end of "Life's a Bitch," when his father, Olu Dara, steps in over the beat with a muted trumpet, searching for the tone with which Nas expressed the futility of his life, it's all like a rose stretching up between cracks in the sidewalk, calling attention to its beauty, calling attention to the lack of it everywhere else.

If it's a butter flow you crave while cruising for daisy dukes this summer, Shyheim is your man, even though he's only 15. For kids in hip-hop, like women, it's nearly impossible to become the Man, because if you don't sound like a man, you can't be Him. Shyheim tries to bolster his credentials by announcing often on AKA that he's down with Wu-Tang, but the Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard don't rhyme on the album, so who cares? Shy is a kiddie rapper with an erratic album and a childish tone, making him sound like a novelty whose notoriety stems from being an MC who's young rather than one with an impressive flow. It's not a dis to say: Watch for Shy after he breaks puberty.

Coolio, an ex-drug addict, ex-fire-fighter and ex-member of WC and the Maad Circle, has had a long wait for his turn to shine, and he's ready. Thief establishes him as a rapper who's got the skills to be taken seriously, even though he's as lighthearted and comical as Biz Markie. But Coolio is not self-effacing, and with his Southern California twang, he's likely to be noticed for not being a gangsta. With all the bass-heavy, huge-groove singles on Thief, Coolio will keep low riders high on his "wino funk" all summer long.

But bop and swerve as they may, in colder regions a West Coast backlash might be in effect: The wild success of Wu-Tang and their inexpensive sound, coupled with the surprisingly mild aesthetic impact of Death Row's Above the Rim soundtrack (not to mention Regulate, by Warren G, Dre's little brother), signal that Dre's hegemony may be ending. That's why Nas' timing, like his cadence, is so dope. He's not as underground sounding as Wu-Tang, yet he does spring from and aspires to impress the hood.

But to assume that the ghetto in him — Queensbridge projects, Queens, N.Y. — makes him great is to get way too wrapped up in hip-hop's realness debate. No matter how rough you had it and how authentically you portray it, it'll be MC skills — the distinctiveness of your voice, the adeptness of your rhythm and flow, the quality of your lyrics — that will ultimately determine if you move the crowd.

The Wu crew opened a door for Nas, reminding Broadway how good New York-style beats and lyrics — as opposed to West Coast sinister funk and slow, gangsta rhymes — could be. Illmatic will probably be Broadway's album of the year, not for the real life behind its dedication to 13 dead homies but for the work on the CD. If an MC's history were really more important than his skills, then anyone from the projects would be able to rhyme like Nas, and Nas would be no different from any bum riding down Broadway.

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