(Today's Reader Review comes to you from Jeff, who tackles Elzhi's Nas-inspired free effort Elmatic. Leave your thoughts for Jeff below, and check out his blog, Emaciated Wildebeest, when you're done here.)
Some quick background: Illmatic. The 1994 debut from Nas is a monolithic record, one which has garnered praise and admiration from all over the spectrum and has influenced a generation of rappers, all due to Nas’s vibrant depictions of life in the Queensbridge projects over hard-hitting beats from some of the best producers of the day. It’s considered to be not only one of the greatest records our genre of choice has ever produced, but one of the greatest albums ever made. It’s safe to say that Illmatic is pretty much untouchable.
So why is Elzhi touching it? All over?
Hailing from Detroit, Elzhi came to prominence as a member of Slum Village, joining the group after the departure of famed beatmaker J Dilla. After Slum Village’s dissolution (rest in peace to Dilla and Baatin), El went out on his own, releasing a strong debut record with 2008’s The Preface and becoming well-known in the underground for his intricate wordplay. While on tour several years ago, he decided to take on an intriguing project: remaking Illmatic.
It’s not a completely unique idea. Illmatic is a pretty influential record, and in 2010 California-based artist Fashawn actually unleashed his own tribute to Illmatic, entitled, uh, Tribute to Illmatic, rhyming about life in his hometown of Fresno over the original project's instrumentals. El, however, decided to pay his respects in a bolder and much more striking way.
Elmatic is a modernized, Detroit-relocated record heavily inspired by Nas and not just another tribute (no offense to Fashawn). Elzhi worked hard to make sure his version could stand on its own. To this end, he employed Detroit’s own Will Sessions, a live band, to redo Illmatic's beats. With his rhymes, he stepped up to the plate to paint a picture of the Motor City as vividly as Nas did with the QB.
So, does Elmatic live up to the original? Let’s see.
Right out the gate, El addresses one of Illmatic’s few criticisms: He forgoes a lengthy intro and gets right into rapping, flexing his verbal might on a one-verse wonder which gets you amped up for what’s to come. The Sessions band’s take on the “Genesis” beat moves at a faster clip than the original, with a slick and rather playful guitar lick, which adds to the track very nicely. It’s a damn good way to kick things off.
2. DETROIT STATE OF MIND
And here we go. From the moment this one starts you’ll notice much of a difference a live band actually makes, as DJ Premier’s original “NY State Of Mind” beat now sounds warmer and fuller. Even better is how the band switches things up by occasionally dropping the piano loop a note, which somehow makes the song sound even more ominous and uneasy than before. Lyrically, Elzhi takes us on a trip through Hell, dropping downright devastating lines such as, “The hood is like a glass house the Devil throws stones through”, and mentions the D as a city “built above where the Indians rest”. His performance is just as visceral and as bleak as what Nas originally wrote. The shout-out interlude at the end from El’s buddy mentioning the concept behind Elmatic is a nice tidbit, too.
Whoa, wait, already? We’re only like three tracks in! No matter, El jumps in with some pretty damn entertaining rhymes, dismissing all challengers. I always chuckle at his boast that he “wouldn’t slip on a snowy night” as well as when he calls out Internet haters. The band plays it pretty closely to the original beat, making for a pretty airtight listen, although it doesn’t pack the same charge as the previous two tracks.
4. MEMORY LANE
This was one of my favorite songs from Illmatic, and once again, El and the band truly makes this one unique with the addition of a female vocalist harmonizing with the music, immediately making this a more soulful and intimate listen. Elhzi really goes to work here, describing his growth from a boy to a man in Detroit. He recalls very personal events in his life, such his mother’s bout with cancer, picking up his first girl (for the twelfth time), and watching a young Eminem and Proof perform live. I especially liked how he considers the stroll down “Memory Lane” to be a real trip, even trying to decide between using the mental plane or the train of thought to reach them. One of the best moments is toward the end of the track, where El ends his rap to let the band play on. To top it off, the scratched-in Biz Markie sample is slightly altered to shout-out the D. Fantastic.
5. THE WORLD IS YOURS
With a tip of the hat to Nas, Elzhi shows us exactly why he’s one of the best lyricists in the game right now, rapping about his rise to the top and doing things his way. The piano keys on this one hit much harder than on the original, making for a more jazz-inflected take which sounds beautiful, but the band really shines towards the end, segueing into an interlude which improvises the original beat and creates a piece which is perfect for a smooth lounge listen that you don’t really tire of. I resisted the grandiose orchestral swell at the end at first, until the familiar opening notes of “Represent” chimed in and I found myself smiling.
As to be expected, El puts in a solid performance, holding it down the Motor City and speaking out for the cats on the grind. The band’s take on DJ Premier’s original beat is brisker and improved by some lively drum work. It’s a pretty decent track, though not as memorable as some of the previous tracks.
7. LIFE’S A BITCH (FEAT. ROYCE DA 5’9” & STOKLEY WILLIAMS)
“Life’s a Bitch.” Let that sit with you for a moment. From the evocative lyrics of Nas and AZ to the powerful trumpet interlude in the end by Nas’s father, Olu Dara, “Life’s a Bitch” is quite possibly Illmatic’s most iconic listen. El and fellow Detroit emcee Royce da 5’9” have one hell of a challenge ahead of them. Despite a good effort, Royce's performance is nowhere near as compelling or as desperate as AZ’s, as he spends more time pimping himself and his skill than he does establishing a mood and setting. Elzhi outshines his guest easily, going on the attack and spitting some great lines (I liked the bit about weeding out haters like he does his dutch), but ultimately, he comes up short as well. The Sessions band goes for a smoother tune which doesn’t rumble as hard as L.E.S.’s original beat, but it still sounds pretty decent. The horn solo at the end is a solid take on Olu Dara’s incredible tune, and afterward the band launches into a full-on cover of the Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love,” the original sample used on “Life's A Bitch”, which is pleasant enough for a listen or two. It’s a good track which doesn’t come close to the original, but then again, to do that would be a near-impossible task.
8. ONE LOVE
El deviates from Nas's original course on here: instead of rhyming to a buddy locked up, he ruminates about a woman he used to love, going through the phases of meeting, infatuation, hooking up (though that bit where El mentions that he could fuck her even when she’s bleeding…ew), and ultimately falling out. The beat, which uses an actual xylophone, feels more elemental than the original, and the band switches things up for the ending, launching into an R&B-inflected version of the tune which sounds like something out of a Marvin Gaye recording session. Nice!
9. IT AIN’T HARD TO TELL
While I was never the biggest fan of the original song, El’s version grabbed my attention, as he reminisces about his past and his come-up. On“Memory Lane” he provided flashes of his teen years, but on here he goes back into his childhood, delivering some great lines like, “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon, just a wooden one up on my kitchen wall”. Paired with the upbeat take on the original instrumental, this comes off as a rather positive listen, as Elzhi has risen above the hell of his surroundings and is looking forward to the future. A great way to end the project.
10. PETE ROCK SHOUT
After a quick shout out from Mr. Rock (one of the original producers from Illmatic), El launches into not one, but two hidden tracks. On the first he goes into the game of being a hip hop artist, providing words of wisdom for aspiring rappers, over a lush instrumental. The second is a reprise of “Detroit State of Mind” over a different beat, which plays out exactly as it reads.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? When I first of Elmatic, I was somewhat apprehensive of the project. I wasn’t too familiar with Elhzi, and the idea of redoing such a massive album could only lead to disappointment, or, in the case of Fashawn’s attempt, a somewhat forgettable result. But when I actually heard the album, I was floored. The acoustic approach to the music by the Will Sessions band gives Illmatic new life, and El’s hunger and immense talent makes for a record that’s damn near every bit as engaging, as exciting, and as remarkable as Illmatic was. The great tracks are unforgettable; the lesser tracks are still head and shoulders above a lot of rap out there today, and despite skipping “One Time 4 Your Mind” (which, to be fair, is actually kind of forgettable on the original Illmatic, too) entirely, Elmatic is not only a worthy tribute to a classic, it stands on its own as a solid record, and easily one of the best releases of the year. Yeah, it’s that good. Elzhi is so awesome that he released this project for free (in conjunction with XXL), so you have no reason to not pick this up.
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)