Note: This is an opinion piece. If you wish to debate, let’s set a date face to face.
“Stillmatic is better than Illmatic!” – a friend screamed while we were playing “Ether”. I almost wished I had ether to pour over him. I mean, how do you disrespect such a gold standard in the history of hip-hop?
Upon listening to both LPs copious times, I found myself leaning towards his view but still adamant he was talking hogwash. Illmatic changed the plateau of rap as a whole for me. Nasir Jones not only made a hard-hitting album but he managed to plant the seed that we still see prevalent in today’s age. Talk to anyone who has listened to Nas’ catalogue; if Illmatic doesn’t come up, they really need their ears cleaned.
Admittedly so, Stillmatic came at a time of turmoil in Nas’ life. After he released Illmatic back in 1994, the Nas had good albums that couldn’t eclipse the greatness that was and remains to be Illmatic. 7 years in, three albums and one with his crew The Firm, Illmatic’s stature was still not shaken. It was Stillmatic that put Nas back in the limelight, especially the memorable feud with Jay Z and the one who was nicknamed ‘The Second Coming of Rakim’ was back with more quotables for buzzing hip hop heads.
Also, many have argued that Stillmatic was more musical than Illmatic. I’ve also heard some class Illmatic as great a masterpiece as it was; rugged and raw – whereas with Stillmatic, Nas had to be meticulous with the beef between he and Jay Z breathing down his neck. Nas showed his mettle in the whole debacle and managed to produce a beautiful album. This theory is what forms the basis of some proclamations that Stillmatic is a better body of work than Illmatic.
On impact to the whole genre, Illmatic wins by a landslide and Stillmatic (name derived from Illmatic ironically) is a beauty and yes more musical but it doesn’t better the classic.
With that said, the cases are few and far between where a follow up album is better than what is called the classic on an artist’s catalogue. The moment an artist’s album is titled a classic, does anyone showcase pedantic tendencies about the other albums and fully scrutinise them? Does anyone perhaps find that these other gems are better holistically than the one called a classic? What if an artist’s magnum opus is not the widely known as a classic?
I have two local cases where I’ve seen this happen…
Skwatta Kamp: Khut n Joyn VS Mkhukhu Funkshen
The large crew has had a fair share of the spotlight within the industry that almost every rapper out now acknowledges their greatness and input into the ever-growing SA Hip Hop industry. So what’s Skwatta Kamp’s best album? Khut n Joyn? The time the guys hustled to get music to radio and bullied cyphers all around Johannesburg. Those were the good ol’ days. The names Flabba, Infa, Fantum Slikour, Initial M, Bozza, Shugasmakx, Master Sips and roughly 15 plus unofficial members (at one point it was recorded Skwatta Kamp had 22 members) sent shivers down MCs spines and injected excitement into crowds. Nope. In fact, Skwatta’s best album happens to be the highly acclaimed Mkhukhu Funkshen.
Yes Khut n Joyn was a dope effort, as ‘classic’ as it was claimed by fans, but three songs and a lot of confusion on who was on the tracks carried it. “Rau Rau” was a banger with not everyone getting a verse on it. “Manyisa” was a street bash banger and the controversy surrounding “Politics” where the government was attacked for its lack of service delivery and the then president Thabo Mbeki was called an alcoholic… Needless to say that the streets acknowledged the skill.
Fast forward, Skwatta Kamp sign with Gallo. A lot expected them to be diluted and ‘sell-out’ as they signed with a major label yet out of the gate, they released a monumental album. The crew trimmed down to 6 official members [the rest was labelled 'family'], with each rapper spitting least 8 bars on a song. With Stethoscope mainly producing the album, the songs in it had the MCs showcase unrivaled skill. The streets still nodded along, the corporates listened and radio was forced to play them as the album was nothing short of great. The production matched the ferocity of the rappers and concepts showed the crew not only can battle in the streets but also can put down records that will have peers shaking in their boots. The rappers didn’t hold back their skill and the MC instinct of going for the kill.
Khut n Joyn is known as the classic yet Mkhukhu Funkshen was more correlative and organised. The crew was in sync, it didn’t sound like 8 plus talented rappers meeting in studio and each one has his own agenda to push. Skwatta Kamp was a unit and it’s transparent in the album.
PRO: Heads And Tales vs Dankie San
Ask any Soweto resident who is known as the ‘Number One Soweto boy’ and Linda Mkhize aka PRO formerly known, as Pro Kid will come up unanimously.
9 years ago the pint size MC released his debut Heads and Tales. Immediate love flowed to the MC thanks to the whistle filled banger, “Soweto”. When he released the song, “Woz’uzobabona” Soweto had every 325is spinning in excitement and after multiple spins all around, the album was crowned a classic. Fair.
Two albums later, PRO went from Gallo to TS Records; a label that was primarily Kwaito with the success of Mzekezeke. PRO was the first hip-hop act in the label. Not only is that pressure, the label has been know for hauling any and every award on offer. PRO was in the company of winners
In the intro of Dankie San he says,
Heads and Tales came through, got a warm reception. DNA (second album) came through…ehhh…I’m not so sure. Now Dankie San,
That is an artist who is aware of his catalogue and its impact. Dankie San also saw PRO establish himself as not just a Le Club veteran but an MC who can dabble in being a brand. The album Dankie San also saw PRO enlist fewer producers showing he has found his niche and was comfortably running in his own lane. At the time, PRO was fast getting known as the best hybrid rapper in SA. Dankie San was his distinguishing album. And although Heads And Tales had 7 different producers while Dankie San only saw Pro enlist the rookies at the time, IV League for his first single “Bhampa”, Dankie San is is undoubtedly his magnum opus. Heads And Tales is the classic that put Soweto on the map but Dankie San built the PRO brand.
Its hard to expect anything else to eclipse what was crowned as the ultimate best, but if we take all factors into consideration, you may find a follow up album or even a preceding one, is of better quality holistically than what is known as the classic.
In closing, Illmatic is still better than Stillmatic. Debate me. I dare you.
Written By: Siphiwe Zwane (@SDotJR_)