Illmatic, the first album by hip-hop elder statesman Nas, is a masterpiece. Released in 1994, its tales of scowling corner boys, prowling drug addicts, undercover cops, treacherous lovers, and remorseful gangsters are so vivid that you can almost feel your nostrils being singed as Nas brushes the marijuana ash from his clothes. From out the gate, Nas identifies himself as a writer's writer ("see with the pen I'm extreme") and proceeds to prove himself right, offering lines that are poetic ("with more kicks/than a baby in a mother's stomach"), bleak ("straight-up shit is real/and any day could be your last in the jungle"), and cautiously hopeful ("that buck that bought a bottle/could have struck the lotto").
As the legend goes, the frenetic pace of Nas' flow, his complex internal rhyme schemes, and his dense lyricism had people wearing out their cassette tapes, rewinding them over and over again in disbelief. It's the one album in all of hip-hop whose artistic value, regardless of the critic's personal taste, is unassailable. Even Nas' longtime nemesis, Jay-Z, frankly confesses that the first time he heard the album, "the shit was so ahead/ thought we was all dead."
Despite not being a commercial success at the time, Illmatic was recognized as a classic almost immediately. A lean album comprising 10 tracks that eschew trendy beats and high-profile guest appearances, its mythical status was virtually assured when The Source magazine--then still widely known as hip-hop's bible--broke its embargo on giving albums a five-mic rating (the equivalent of a five-star rating) to bestow the honor on Illmatic. Nas was praised for reclaiming hip-hop from the gangsta rap groups of the West Coast and ushering in an East Coast renaissance that included the likes of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z himself.
The new anthology Born To Use Mics, edited by Michael Erie Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, is a love letter to Illmatic, a self-conscious effort to preserve the album as a classic of poetic nonfiction. There's plenty of academic work on hip-hop as a musical genre and a cultural phenomenon. But despite being the most distinct and dominant form of poetic nonfiction of the past 30 years, it has yet to be given its due as literature. Sure, your average liberal-arts college has more than its share of rap-focused classes taught by hip professors ready to act as urban-culture guides for wide-eyed private-school kids. (My class at Vassar was called "Literature from the Underground.") But these are seen as quirky electives. For the most part hip-hop is still fighting a dulled American impulse--the same one that dismissed jazz out of hand as "noise" for so long--that the artistic contributions of urban black culture are just fodder for the groundlings. If Illmatic fails to persuade the reader of hip-hop's intrinsic value as poetic nonfiction, the editors seem to be asking, what else could?
A sense of urgency permeates the book because many hip-hop lovers and cultural critics believe that the genre has become too commercial, that it's lost its artistic promise. Born To Use Mics creaks under the weight of not simply being an exploration of Nas' strongest album but a declaration of "hip-hop's continued relevance ... its urgent necessity." In the introduction, Daulatzai frets that "Illmatic was either the beginning of the end, or it was the exclamation point on the manifesto that was hip-hop." In other words, Illmatic was hip-hop's pinnacle, the place for those who love it to make their last stand.
The main part of the book is organized into 10 essays--one for each of Illmatic's cuts. Like the original LP, it is split into two sides (40th Side North and 41st Side South) in homage to the streets that divide Nas' home neighborhood of Queensbridge, New York. At the back is a set of "remixes," essays and interviews not focused on any particular track on the album.
But despite recruiting a stable of interesting writers with strong feelings about hip-hop, few besides Dyson engage with the album as literature. …