Before and after it leaked, Kendrick Lamar‘s debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city drew the inevitable comparisons to Nas‘ debut album Illmatic. On one hand, these comparisons are just fun ways of saying, “Damn, this new album reminds me of my favorite old album!” On the other hand, these comparisons are actual comparisons, genuine claims that Kendrick has produced something equivalent to what Nas released back in ’94.
Do these comparisons hold up? Do the albums actually have anything in common? No.
The first sign of dissimilarity between the albums is their tones. Illmatic shows some energy before Nas even gets into his rhymes. On the aptly named “The Genesis,” as low drums thud anxiously in the background, Nas and his crew goof off, anticipating the rawness of “N.Y. State of Mind,” the following track. In contrast, good kid, m.A.A.d city starts off with a group of young men reciting a somber, solemn prayer. That solemn mood is maintained pretty much throughout the album, with “Compton” and “Backseat Freestyle” being the only exceptions. ” Illmatic oscillates back and forth between solemnity and energy throughout the album.
Perspective-wise, the dissimilarity between the albums is even more apparent. Even though good kid, m.A.A.d. city is narrated in the present, the album – from its cover art to its subject matter – is firmly anchored in the past. Kendrick doesn’t come back to the present until the end of the album (“Compton”). Illmatic moves freely between the past and present. In fact, on “Memory Lane,” even though he’s supposed to be taking the listener on a trip down memory lane, Nas frequently brings up the present. On “One Love,” reciting a letter written to an incarcerated friend, Nas does the same thing, both recounting how his friend ended up in jail and updating him on the current events in the neighborhood.
The most striking difference between the albums is the difference in flow. Even with differently cadenced instrumentals, Nas’ flow always maintains a steady pace, calmly and smoothly gliding over the beat like a marathon runner on a treadmill. The album as a whole follows suit, with transitions between songs fitting together seamlessly. Kendrick’s flow is more like a marine recruit madly dashing through an obstacle course: there are abrupt stops, pauses, leaps, falls and sprints. Likewise, the album as a whole corresponds: the frequent interruptions via voicemails and skits do the same work as Kendrick’s dynamic flow. Both albums are coherent in the end, but in very distinct ways.
To be fair, a lot of the comparisons between the two albums don’t even pay attention to content. The typical reason for comparison is that the albums represent the “voices of an era.” When an album is the voice of an era, it is said to be “classic.” “Classic” is always a highly retrospective designation. Illmatic didn’t come to “define an era” until that “era” had been retrospectively carved out, until the people living in the moment when it came out looked back at that moment. good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s moment has just begun. How can it already be classic?
Even Kendrick himself seems uncomfortable with the comparisons. Check this interview:
In the end, the unwarranted comparisons between these two great albums show two important things: 1) a lot of hip-hoppers don’t know their history. To make this comparison is to forget that Illmatic was not very successful when it came out; it took 2 years for it to be certified gold and didn’t go platinum until 2001. Let that sink in: in the 90’s, the era of million dollar music video budgets and multiple multi-platinum albums, Illmatic, a so-called “classic album,” was largely ignored. Sure, there were probably thousands of bootlegs in circulation, but even if you look at the singles, Nas wasn’t getting much love. That delayed reception says nothing about the quality of the album, but it does say something about the notion of something being “classic.” 2) “Classic” is a dumb idea. Both albums are good, but they’re ultimately doing very different things in very different ways. Accordingly, they should be allowed to stand alone.