I Don't Like "Illmatic" - My Battle Against Hip-Hop Elitism

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My introduction to Illmatic was like being the last friend to lose their virginity - is this what everyone else was so worked up about? Others spoke about the album like a father watching his son score the winning goal in the last seconds of overtime. They would use words that most saved for their wives or girlfriends: perfect, flawless. I believed them before I ever pressed play. I wasn’t fed hype, I was fed the rules, the Bible, the holy truth of hip-hop. The countless hip-hop forums I visited always had the same views, I was hungry to discover the best music and they always recommended starting with the classics. I never questioned who bestowed these titles, every opinion was unified, this was real hip-hop.

I was young, too young to believe that strongly in my own tastes. Every friend I asked and every website I visited, the recommendations seem to be similar, and the word “classic” was the only reason. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I was supposed to like it. I didn’t like Illmatic. I didn’t like Reasonable Doubt, but I gravitated toward Pac’s All Eyez On Me and Kanye’s Late Registration. No one cared to tell me the importance of these albums, just that they were held in the highest acclaim. It’s easy to learn the lingo. Know which albums to praise, which legends to love, and you’ll be embraced like a brethren. You don’t need to have a single thought, all the thinking is done for you, just follow the leaders and recite the scriptures. Having an opinion outside the general consensus isn’t allowed, you’ll be exiled to an alternative genre if you don’t act in accordance with our united perspective. Who am I to disturb the foundation that was laid before my birth? Before I bought my first CD, the undeniable, unanimous classics already existed. Who am I to voice my distaste for the albums that built this culture? Who am I to be happy in the present, carelessly ignoring the past?

I once told a classmate that Nas' Lost Tape was my favorite album by him, he looked at me as if I said George Bush loves black people. He hit me with a barrage of, “Illmatic has this, Stillmatic has that” and “It Was Written is the greatest hip-hop album of all time.” He was reciting what I always heard, what was always said when Nas' name was mentioned, but what about the personal connection? "Doo Rags" and "Nothing Last Forever" are songs I got lost in for hours. On "Blaze A 50" the storytelling is too vivid, I get chills every time she sniffs that line of glass. "Drunk By Myself" makes me feel like I’m right in the passenger, and "Untitled" is sage level lyricism. Not to mention, the beat selection is incredible. It’s an odd feeling defending your subjective opinion, hip-hop heads will convince you that your ears are broken. Being from the South is bad enough in their eyes, we impelled poisonous daggers into the heart of their culture.

So I stopped debating music, I stopped searching for recommendations. It's exhausting feeling like your every like and dislike has to be defended and dissected. As I got older, I was able to appreciate the music I sought to understand. A few months ago I sat and listened to “The Genesis” on repeat for an hour, because it sounds like the New York City I romanticize. From the slang to the sounds of the subway, it’s a place that I can’t reach when listening to French Montana or Troy Ave.

While talking to Nathan about feeling the pressures of hip-hop elitism, I realized that I did the same thing to my little brother. He has this knack for recommending artists during their indie starvation period and those artists almost always become well-fed superstars. He told me about Rich Homie Quan in 2012, but I didn’t care for any music he had to offer, citing the fact that my brother had never heard a JAY Z or Kanye album as my reasoning. What does he know about rap music? For most of his high school years we were stuck in this cycle of claiming the other had bad taste. When he adamantly tried to convince me this Autotune crooning, dirty Sprite drinking, Free Bandz representing rapper would be the Future, I vehemently called him crazy. He told me about this rapper that was replicating Lil Wayne, had the hair, tattoos, was even vocally similar, and I brushed him aside. He was always ahead while I was looking behind, his ears are fixated on the present, listening for whatever resonates with his personal preference. I thought about him after watching Young Thug say he would never buy a JAY Z album. My brother would probably say the same.

“If you’re 30, 40 years old, you’re not getting listened to by minors. Like, Jay Z has some of the sickest lyrics ever, but I would never buy his CD, just because of my age and because of his age. By the time I turn that old, I ain’t gonna be doing what he’s doing.” - GQ interview

I didn't think Thug’s statement was rude or disrespectful. It was a very honest, interesting look at how his younger audience perceives Jay. Witnessing how outraged it made people, I thought he pissed on the Blueprint, or dropped a deuce on the Black Album. He’s a kid that grew up in a post-retirement JAY Z world, Lil Wayne is his idol, what do we expect from him? What do we expect from the kids that don’t know Missy’s prestigious history? There’s going to be kids who never heard of "Cop Killer" but have seen Ice T play a police officer. There’s going to be kids that will see LL Cool J as the corny GRAMMY host and be completely oblivious to "I Need Love." It’s not just Jay, hip-hop is getting older, the audience is getting younger, and the internet is full of angry messages that aren’t helping. 

I don’t know when I started judging someone based on the music they listen to, but it's became more important than their political views. Last year, I was distracting a young lady while my friend ran game on her friend, music is a common conversation, and somehow Nas got brought up. She’s only 19, the same age as my little brother, but that doesn’t excuse her from calling The God MC boring, and that she'd rather listen to her favorite rapper, K-Camp.  At the age of 23, that was the day I gave up on younger women. Instead of recommending my personal favorite records, I labeled her a lost cause and unfollowed her in real life. When did I become this monster!? I joined the same circle of elitism that made me feel unwelcomed when my views didn’t correlate with theirs. I’m no better because of what’s in my iTunes, music is personal, subjective, it shouldn’t make you feel entitled.

We live in a time when we're able to express personal opinions on global platforms and we still get caught up with being “right” or “wrong.” You can shove 101 reasons why I should love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy down my throat but that doesn’t mean I have to share your affection. It’s a lesson my little brother taught me. I think Meek Mill is Classic Lay’s potato chips, he hails Meek as Flamin' Hot Cheetos. He'd rather listen to My Krazy Life than Good Kid m.A.A.D City. He went through a phase of loving Sosa, but didn’t care for Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper. I can’t force him to see hip-hop through my ears, and I love him for it. He’s one of the few people I know that purely enjoys the music he likes without being influenced by lists, album reviews and popular opinion. The best we can do is try and reach them, teach them, but respect that they have their own likes and dislikes. Don’t just spout that Nas is great, introduce Nas through YouTube links, Spotify playlists, any method is better than cap locks and swear words. Be the walking stick for the blind and oblivious, you can’t expect everyone to share your musical awareness. I’m on a mission to mature and stop judging people based on music....except for women who claim Wale as their favorite poet, and grown men that wear Trukfit.

Nathan said he cried a little when I admitted I hadn’t really listened to Ghostface, which made me laugh, because I also didn’t admit that they only Ghost album I'd heard is Ghostdini: Wizard Of Poetry In Emerald City, which is almost worse than not hearing Ghostface at all. (Hey, watch the "Stapleton Sex" video before judging me!)

The cycle continues...

Nathan Update: Yoh and I ended up doing an entire podcast on the subject: 

[By Yoh, aka Yohmatic, aka @Yoh31]

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