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By Oluwaloni Olowookere


Thursday, September 18, 2014.


It is the hope of redemption that keeps the pilgrim's feet stuck on the path; an unwavering determination to tick correctly all the pointers on his soteriological journey. And so it was in the summer of 2012; it was the hope of Nas' prophecy of "hip hop's death" being exaggerated that fueled a journey that began from Slaughterhouse's “Welcome to our House” through to Lupe Fiasco's “Food and Liquor 11”; it peaked at Good Kid M.A.A.D City (GKMC), although it still led to Joe Cole's “Born Sinner”. For me, it was a once and for all resolve to salvage something worthwhile before giving up on the rap genre. This journey will probably see its end at the bottom of the 2014 calendar when history is either made or stained, when Kendrick attempts crossing the Gordian hurdle of living up to the hype of his classic debut album, whether this Herculean task will be subdued or not deviates from our immediate concern.


            GKMC was released to different levels of critical appreciation: some regarded it as a standard hip hop album, while others thought it a classic. A significant few dared to see the "next illmatic" while Shyne's dissenting voice almost infuriated the entire industry. The comparison between GKMC and Illmatic lacks novelty as it is common tradition in this genre for debut albums from prodigy-artistes to raise the issue of the next Illmatic, but GKMC raises so much dust over this question, making the haze intolerable without the palliative effect of sprinkled water.


            Nas' debut album Illmatic came out in 1994, when the rapper was just 20 years old, and the album is probably hip hop's most venerated album, earning a perfect score in a genre of music which is customarily critical of its own. A host of critically-acclaimed works in the hip hop genre were said to have been conceived, influenced or informed through the understudy of the "Illmatic". In fact, if hip hop is an euphemism for a new religion, Illmatic will be the symbolic Bible or the Koran. But what feeds the continued relevance and essence that the Illmatic is still regularly served? Why has Illmatic set a bar of excellence in hip hop which has become so elusive ever since?  These questions amongst others can be tackled through an analytic comparison of themes in both Illmatic and GKMC.


            Set amidst the Projects of Queensbridge, New York,  Illmatic is an encyclopedia of the "black life" constituted in the ghetto, encompassing and embracing every facet of African-American culture; identifying and establishing the true essence of hip hop. In actuality, Illmatic can be described as a glass prism capturing different shades and nuances; its holistic and overarching approach makes it a thematic masterpiece. A glimpse at the lyrics of Illmatic sees words melting and bending into every aspect of the black culture as if Nas was racing against time to deliver his verdict on every topic, story, theme, idea with issues ranging from drugs to sex, gang violence, adolescence, peer pressure, politics etc. Illmatic addresses only a single theme - Hip Hop. A generic approach that pinpoints and highlights issues and compensates for a lack of thorough expatiation through synergic aura or bond that holds together a bunch of themes together in a loose form.


This is the thematic approach of Illmatic: Illmatic is a masterpiece because it deals with the whole unlike GKMC whose plot was specific and well thought-out. Though not all tracks on Illmatic lack a specific concept, story or theme; an example is "One Love" which addresses the issues like imprisonment and the related absence and abdication of responsibility. Yet Illmatic will say in a couple of lines what GKMC will try describing in an entire song. For example, consider an excerpt from "One time for your mind" on Illmatlic:

....Then I send a shorty from my block to the store for Phillies

After being blessed by the herb's essence

I'm back to my rest, ten minutes some odd seconds

That's where I got the honey at, spends the night for sexing

Cheap lubrication, Lifestyle protection....


These few lines are the equivalent of Kendrick's "Sheerane" track which swallowed time in excess of four minutes trying to graphically illustrate what Nas alluded to in less than ten seconds.


            While GKMC is the story of an adolescent trying to resist the influence and rise above the abundant vices and demons resident in the concrete jungle of Compton, California, Illmatic features the particular story  of GKMC and a whole lot of others in a most implicit collective form. Illmatic is like examining yourself in a full body size mirror, GKMC is like picking a broken shard off that full body size mirror to examine one's self. The former will get a form of bold certainty that makes fiction take on a factual cloak while the later sees suggested imagination as a way of getting around its limited view or vision. This logic is very unfair to Kendrick and GKMC considering the fact that the artistic brilliance and conceptual creativity involved  is matched in  recent years only by Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and we should consider the fact that GKMC  matches Illmatic's production quality and also supersedes it in regards to lyrical structuring and delivery.  Tracks like Sing About Me (I'm dying of thirst), Good Kid, MAAD City, The Art Of Peer Pressure, amongst others feature the dexterity of poetic flair and sublime use of imagery. Compared to GKMC, Illmatic is vague. GKMC like some other excellent works in the hip hop genre are victims of historical circumstance; because even if they are not intentionally patterned after Illmatic, they cannot escape its web of influence or shadow if they conform to its blueprint, map or compass. Art is incestous but maybe incest is not always profitable to Art's posterity.


            Illmatic will remain relevant and pivotal until hip hop history is rewritten, but sadly enough GKMC did not do that. Until Illmatic's mirror is exchanged for a better one and not just a shard or miniature piece of glass, gifted artistes in the hip hop genre will be under-celebrated and will be left with no choice than to croon hopefully like Kendrick did with the hook from "Sing About Me" below:


.....When the lights shut off

And it's my turn to settle down

My main concern

Promise that you will sing about me

Promise that you will sing about me....


Oluwaloni Olowookere is a graduate of Covenant University, Nigeria, he self-published his first collection of poems, Graffiti, earlier this year.

Juxtaposing Thematic Approaches: Between Illmatic and Good Kid Maad City

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