Two East Coast legends square off in the latest installment of our Debut Album Versus series.
When Big L was shot and killed in New York City in 1999, there was a sense that the rap world had lost their “next one.” At just 24 years of age, the emcee born Lamont Coleman had already made a significant mark on the hip-hop community from a writing standpoint and seemed destined to take that big next step into the realm of superstardom. In fact, Jay-Z was supposedly about to sign him to Roc-A-Fella right before his passing, a move that would’ve no doubt vaulted him to much greater heights. These days, he’s remembered for being a man with stark truths to tell about a life lived mostly in the pressure cooker that is the inner city streets, his harsh words dancing over lilting jazzy melodies and funky drum grooves, almost incongruously so. The word poetic has often been attached to his rapping style - a quality that he shares with another NYC legend, Nas.
While his career wasn’t cut nearly as short as Big L’s, Nasir Jones has nonetheless had his share of ups and downs over the course of his career. Born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the young rapper cut his teeth in the city's underground scene, just as Big L had, gaining tons of momentum that ultimately helped thrust him into the spotlight after the release of his sterling debut, Illmatic. The people’s history of hip-hop from the era will tell you that Nas had a debut that continues to be widely considered to be one of the great releases of that decade, if not of all time. However, sales-wise, it performed way below expectations, taking nearly two years to become certified Gold by the RIAA. It was a case of big label effort with indie label returns attached to it, a fact that didn’t necessarily line up all the way with historical perception.
Of course, Nas has built himself a fine career and carved out a place in the rap lexicon as a man who is acknowledged as a master of his craft. With singles like “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)” and “Made You Look” to his name, he’s hardly missed out on the financial spoils that come with being a top-tier hip-hop artist either. However, there are two theories that continue to dog Nas, even after he’s seemingly done everything to prove his critics wrong. For one, he’s been called out in some die-hard circles for “losing his edge” over the years, much in the same way that Eminem fans talk about their beloved firebreather and how he's mellowed considerably with the onset of middle age. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Nas at times feels like he can’t shake the shadow that Illmatic cast upon his career, trying to live up to impossibly high artistic standards, probably knowing full well that trying to make lightning strike twice is a fool’s errand. Every subsequent release from had at least one person pipe up and say "It's good, but it's no Illmatic" - frankly, not much is.
If Nas’ Illmatic is the Boston of the hip-hop world, then Big L might be more akin to a Jim Morrison-type figure - a bright light who was deeply admired while he was alive but perhaps only truly appreciated as he left us. Like the legendary Doors front man, L never quite achieved the universal success that his talent potentially deserved, but the quality of his brief musical output continues to earn new generations of fans that keep his name in the conversation of New York’s finest rap figures. Had his life not been cut short, who knows if he would’ve built up a reputations and a following like Nas has managed to do - but then again, it’s a task that would be easier said than done when Mr. Jones is the comparable.
Who will take home of the crown for having the better debut album between Nas & Big L? Let’s find out.
The jazzy stylings on the production side of both records brings the mind (and the ear) back to a time when everything sounded somewhat similar, yet still unique on a certain level. Featuring mellow beats with some twinkling brass or keyboard accents over top, the contrast that you get on both debuts is a study in what stripping away the excess can do to let the lyrics breathe. In actuality, that was probably the best decision that could have been made in either situation, seeing as how the production work, while rock solid and admirable in their own rights, never detract from the main attraction, which in both cases is the writing and vocal delivery.
Illmatic boasts a host of well-known NYC names on the credits list, including Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and L.E.S. Premier in particular is said to have influenced the combination of simple loops over heavy-set beats that run through the entire album. In truth, Nas’ debut isn’t particularly long, clocking in at just under 40 minutes total, but the impression made in that short time cannot be underestimated. The little snippets of other records mesh perfectly with the low-key grooves running underneath, with the horns that punctuate “N.Y. State of Mind” being one of the all-time examples of how one minute addition to a track’s production scheme can make all the difference. That particular example is far from the only highlight of this nature from Illmatic, with the keyboard samples on “The World Is Yours” and “Represent” being up there on the list of memorable loops that pop up again and again on this album. All that being said though, is there a better 90’s sample moment that the cascading “duh-duh-duh” vocal rip on “It Ain’t Hard To Tell?” You can almost picture the words melting into this smooth waterfall that, if you stand under, will jar you at first, but ultimately soothe and caress you.
As for Big L’s Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous, Lord Finesse took care of the lion’s share of the production, alongside his fellow Diggin’ In The Crates Crew members Buckwild and Showbiz. There are some recognizable samples used here, most notably the unmistakable DeBarge assist that is now the glue holding the song “MVP” together, but mostly it’s another instance where small loops make all the difference on the instrumentals. The brass section plays a bigger part on Lifestylez than Illmatic, softening the edges on at least half of the tracks to downplay the horror-core nature of some of the rhymes. Does it make the tracks that much softer? Maybe in the beginning, but that effect gives way to the end of the record, which takes on a far more intimidating tone. Songs like “I Don’t Understand It” and the eponymous track seem to willingly throw away any attempt at overt commercialism and focus instead on channeling the bleak energy that comes from the lyrics. On “Fed Up Wit The Bulls**t,” the horns take on an angrier quality, almost as if they’re warning the listener to keep their distance. It’s a remarkable move that, over the booming beat of the song, makes it one of the strongest production moments on the album.
It is in this area where Nas and Big L really distinguished themselves from their peers, even if you’re just using the other New York-based hip-hop titans for comparison. No one quite did the street-centric tale from years past quite like Nas, intertwining a level of personal experience and, by extension, unchecked humanity that wasn’t all that present on the East Coast scene at the time. Everyone else was too busy trying to craft that perfect hook, like The Notorious B.I.G., in order to gain crossover radio airplay, or they were wildin’ out like the Wu-Tang Clan (and specifically Ol’ Dirty Bastard) did on their debut. Not ineffective approaches to music making, but still not Nas.
There is this almost indescribable realness with his lyrics, not just in terms of content, but in delivery as well. Even if you don’t come from the same background, same part of the world, everyone who’s ever listened to Illmatic latches onto the confessional picture-painting that he does so well, pulling you into a specific type of nightmarish New York reality and never letting you go. Nowhere was that more evident than on “N.Y. State of Mind,” where he gives two variations on the same line, with the second just as terrifying as the first:
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothing's equivalent, to the New York State of Mind
It drops deep as it does in my breath
I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined
I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of mind.
Big L was no stranger to meaningful prose on his first record, detailing his life’s experiences in a similarly bulls**t-free manner. However, the key difference is that L often positioned himself as the one doing the damage on the streets. As an example, check out this excerpt from his hit single, “Put It On:”
I run with sturdy cliques
I'm never hittin' dirty chicks
Got 35 bodies, buddy, don't make it 36
Step to this, you're good as gone
Word is bond, I leave mics torn when I put it on
There was also this sense that Big L had an idea that fate prevented his rap career from finding the break it need to go national, if not global. On “I Don’t Understand,” the rapper makes no bones about the fact that, in 90’s-era New York where every thug considered themselves a bar-spitter, some decidedly less-talented emcees were getting their shots at fame and fortune before he did, evoking this sense of barely contained rage that was sitting just below the surface.
And that really gets on my nerve
When a rapper gets the credit that he don't deserve
Goin platinum and don't have no soul
Some rappers are mad nice and don't even go gold
I don't like the way it's goin down
Because it should be the other way around
Both men were incredible lyricists, albeit dealing from different points of view while operating mostly in the same physical space, or at least the mental images that their songs collectively conjure up. With some added time spent walking among the living, who knows what other pearls of street wisdom Big L might have dropped on the masses.
It’s almost unfair to make this argument with all the previously mentioned baggage attached to Illmatic, hence why I got it out of the way earlier. Yes, the calls for it to be named the greatest rap album of all time are not unfounded and it most certainly resides on many people’s Mount Rushmore when talking about hip-hop records. However, while flying mostly under the radar, Big L’s Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous left a similar mark on critics and listeners alike. The Source stated that his prose were full of “metaphors that stun,” a description that is more than apt. Overall, Illmatic is one of those albums that is unquestionably must-listen to material for novice listeners of the genre, but what about Lifestylez? It’s almost as if, on one side, you’re looking at what is, and on the other side, what could’ve been. It may not fill that gap, but it also makes it far smaller than some might lead you to believe it is.