I never sleep, ‘coz sleep is played out like Kwame and them fuckin’ polka dots
One of the better Klosterman articles* from Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs takes on the decade-long rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, in which one of the two teams made the finals every year and they faced each other in the main event three times. The two teams, he said, were diametrically opposite in nearly all ways, nominally in terms of the respective ideologies they represented. Consequently, just about everyone in the world, whether they realize it or not, is either a Lakers person or a Celtics person, subconsciously living their lives according to the codes espoused by one of these two outfits–and those that don’t, says CK, simply don’t believe in anything.
To be honest, I didn’t understand this article the first time I read it. To be even more honest, I still didn’t understand it the next three or four times I read it. And to continue my unblemished streak of honesty, reading it again before writing this article left me more confused than ever. I assume few, if any, people outside the realm of 80s basketball superfandom can really follow the points Klosto makes to cement his argument, and even within that circle, most are probably left scratching their heads at least once by the end of the article. But the idea is there, and so we can overlook the finer points. (Plus, the only two writers I have the capacity to properly steal from are Klosterman and Bill Simmons, and I already stole the Vs. idea from Simmons).
Anyway, Ready to Die and Illmatic. Two New York-based debut rap albums, released in 1994. Both concerned with street life and self-empowerment, both largely centered around vivid story-telling, and both highly ambivalent about life in general. Most importantly, both near-unanimously acclaimed as not only their respective artists’ masterpiece, but as the go-to choices for the greatest hip-hop album of the entire decade–rivalled possibly only by Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang: The 36 Chambers as the one 90s rap album you simply can’t find people to hate on. (But of course, you can still find fanboys to claim that their over-ambitious, less acclaimed but more commercially successful follow-ups are superior).
However, despite the overwhelming musical and cultural overlap between these two albums, subtle multitudes of artistic and conceptual differencies lie underneath the surface. Ready to Die plays out in big-budget widescreen, an almost-operatic narrative that plays out like The Tragedy of Christopher Bridges. The songs are unabashedly personal and overwhelmingly emotional, while the beats run from suffocating paranoia to lush, 80s R&B-sampled velvet. Illmatic, on the other hand, is a much less expansive album–seven tracks shorter, for one, and much more unified across the board in terms of feeling and sound, despite the legendary cast of diverse producers. The songs, while obviously personal, still feel far more distant than those on Ready to Die–Nas is less of a personality than Biggie, and his songs seem more concerned with their street poetry and hypnotic hooks than in really letting you into the world of Nasir Jones.
The differences between the two albums are perfectly reflected in their commercial legacies, which unlike their critical reputations, are wildly divergent. Illmatic was never much more than a street classic, getting the coveted Five Mics rating from The Source and becoming a word-of-mouth success, but only selling about 500k and spawning no top 40 hits (the biggest, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” topped out at #92). Ready to Die, however, quickly achieved the blockbuster status it was destined for, spawning three top 40 hits (including the #2 remix of “One More Chance”), going multi-platinum, and establishing Biggie as the rapper who put the East Coast back on the map at the height of the G-Funk era.
So now that I’ve gotten all this out of the way, do I believe, like the K-Man, that you can predict all major life decisions a person will make based on their preference between these two albums? Nah. I doubt that choosing Ready to Die over Illmatic can be an accurate forecaster of whether you will cook or eat out for dinner tonight, go for the towels or the dryer after washing your hands in a public restroom, or vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in the next presidential election (frankly, I secretly suspect all rappers of being closeted Republicans, and in the case of Nas, not even closeted anymore). However, I do believe where you fall in the RTD/Illmatic continuum can accurately predict what side you’ll take in the majority of the great pop cultural debates of our time–whether in music, film, television, sports or even trash literature.
What’s that? You want a list of examples, then, demonstrating the breakdown? I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK
The Wire vs. The Sopranos
Stack Up: May as well start out with the most obvious example here. The breakdown between these two shows lines up in almost perfect parallel to that between Ready to Die and Illmatic. Doesn’t hurt that the shows are pretty similar to the two albums to begin with–not only because they are also so heavily concerned with the crimes and codes of the streets (and not only because parts of The Wire play out like a brilliantly constructed hip-hop album), but because in their fields, they stand practically peerless.
Ready to Die Fan: Goes with The Sopranos here. Both have the same air of epic tragedy about them, both have stratospheric highs and lows, both have loveable fat dudes (whose portliness never seems to interfere with their sexual prowess, at least if “Fuck Me (Interlude)” is to be believed) at their center, and both inspire a lot of stupid T-shirts sold at New York street corners. Plus, imagine how pissed off would be if RTD closer “Suicidal Thoughts” was just Biggie rapping about onion rings and parallel parking.
Illmatic Fan: Goes with The Wire. Episodes of a season of The Wire are a whole lot like tracks on Illmatic–none are particular standouts on their own, since all feel like pieces of a bigger puzzle, and all are so unfailingly strong in quality. Not a bum or excessive note or scene in the bunch. Also, though both have a strong and compelling central character, both are more than willing to let their staggering supporting cast (in Nas’s case, the all-star producer line-up of Q-Tip, Large Professor, DJ Premier, L.E.S., and Pete Rock) share the spotlight.
Third Party Choice?: ‘Heads who believe Golden-Age era rap groups EPMD or Boogie Down Productions are as good as East Coast hip-hop ever got might also insist that Homicide, David Simon’s similarly brilliant but less explicit and more inconsistent pre-Wire project, is actually superior to both. Hell, Detective Pembleton was almost as preachy as KRS-One at times. Fugees fans might also be into the Shakespeare Goes West super-operaticisms (heh) of Deadwood.
Michael Crichton vs. John Grisham
Stack Up: The two most popular and unavoidable authors of the 1990s, and by that I mean the two that I read a shitload of books by on Middle School bus rides (that sex scene in Disclosure was the closest thing I had to decent porn at the time). I’m pretty sure there are a bunch of businessmen in their 40s that would’ve agreed with me, except for the part about Disclosure anyway.
Ready to Die Fan: Probably a Crichton supporter. Crichton could switch up styles and subjects between books, following up Jurassic Park with Rising Sun just like Ready to Die follows “Juicy” with “Everyday Struggle”. And hey, at least Crichton proved he could write about sex, something which the oddly asexual Illmatic seems entirely unconerned with, but which Biggie seems to have noooooo problem with (sometimes to a fault, though “I got that good dick girl, you didn’t know?” is still a hell of a hook)
Illmatic Fan: More into Grisham. Like Illmatic, Grisham is no-nonsense, almost to the point of cold efficiency (look at those titles–The Chamber, The Client, The Firm, The Partner). And as Illmatic knows its strengths (street life snapshots, unpretentious storytelling, modestly infectious hooks) and tends not to deviate from them, so does Grisham (writing about lawyers and shit). You’re not going to hear Nas commiting suicide at the end of Illmatic, just like you’re never going to see John Grisham writing about evil orbs or super-intelligent (and possibly also evil? I don’t remember) apes.
Third Party Choice?: I feel like Mobb Deep fans might be more into Tom Clancy, though I don’t think I could really articulate why.
Billy Joel vs. Bruce Springsteen
Stack Up: Rock’s two patron saints of the Tri-State area, Bruce and Billy never seem to really court direct competition with the other, but their careers are strikingly parallel–Mid-70s cult successes that had their most well-remembered hits early on, but didn’t achieve their greatest commercial success until the early 80s, the fading of which both avoided by becoming hermits for most of the 90s, only to reclaim their status as mega-touring legends in the 21st century.
Ready to Die Fan: More of a Joel man. Joel shares Christopher’s flair for the theatrical, as well as his tendency to drift towards paranoia (I’m sure he would’ve sounded amazing over a beat looping the chorus to “Pressure,” had Puffy had thought of it in time). I’m sure if he had been around enough to build up a larger discography, a Twyla Tharped B.I.G. jukebox musical wouldn’t have been out of the question (especially if they titled it Biggie!) Also, some of Joel’s less guarded songs have the same sort of eerily personal, should I even be listening to this? feeling, like the creepiest moments of Ready to Die.
Illmatic Fan: Definitely more into Springsteen. Like Illmatic, Springsteen is willing to take backseat to his geography–listening to Springsteen’s early songs, you can smell the Boardwalk and feel the chill of the lonely Jersey night, just as Illmatic feels more like New York life than actually living in New York does. And while Springsteen has no problem getting personal, even more than Illmatic ever does, he’s definitely still too naturally cool to ever be really pitiable the way Joel and Biggie are.
Third Party Choice?: Common fans might be more into someone like Neil Young, an ecclectic underground success whose mix of off-the-wall experimentation, blatant stabs at commercialism and genuine innovation has kept them perpetually on the scene, if rarely at the forefront. And yes, I’m aware that this is giving Common way too much credit.
The Colts vs. The Patriots
Stack Up: The two football teams against which all others are currently measured, the ones predicted from the beginning of the season to be meeting up in the AFC championship and the two whose recent game against each other (dubbed “Super Bowl XLI 1/2”) was the most widely-publicized regular season game in as long as I can remember (which, admittedly, is very, very, very un-long).
Ready to Die Fan: Pats all the way. Between the two, New England is the team of superstars–the Dynasty, like Biggie, Puff and the rest of the Bad Boy Family were between the years of 1994 and 1998. Tom Brady is the flashier QB (how many Brazilian supermodels has Peyton Manning dated?), Randy Moss is the flashier receiver (how many OutKast tracks has Marvin Harrison been namechecked on?), and uh, Wes Welker is the flashier kick returner (give him a few years). And as Bill Bellichick recenly demonstrated, like Biggie dealing drugs to make ends meet, The Pats aren’t above a little shadiness to get the job done.
Illmatic Fan: Has hopefully been in hibernation the last couple Sundays. Nas and Colts coach Tony Dungy are a natural match-up–both take no-nonsense approaches to their craft, both refuse to ever raise their voice, and both are heavily influenced by Christianity in their work (well, at least in the “Hate Me Now” and “Got Urself a Gun” videos). With both The Colts and Illmatic, steady performance without grabbing headlines is the key–exemplified perfectly by the team’s making the 30th pick of the 2006 draft one of the most anonymous star running backs in the league. And with both, once loss is experienced, it’s difficult to regain momentum, as evidenced by the Colts’ recent loss to the 4-4 Chargers and by just about every Nas album released between 1996 and 2003.
Third Party Choice: Practicality eclipses ideology here, since I don’t think you’re allowed to be a mid-90s West Coast rap fan without supporting the Raiders.
Die Hard vs. Die Hard: With a Vengeance
Stack Up: Arguably the two most emminently re-watchable action movies of the last 20 years–I must’ve seen the two a combined 25 times over the course of my life–and easily the two twin pillars of the Die Hard franchise (and consequently, Bruce Willis’s career).
Ready to Die Fan: Probably prefers the original. It’s got bigger individual moments, spawned more catchphrases, and generally has a bigger place in the pop culture lexicon. Plus, McClane’s relationship with Holly in the original has that sort of love/hate dynamic that Biggie and Faith seemed to share at the time of Ready to Die, and thinking of it in Die Hard terms, the line “I swear to God I hope we fuckin’ die together” takes on new relevance.
Illmatic Fan: Prefers Vengeance. Like on Illmatic, Simon Gruber takes it to the streets, and you get about as much a visual tour of New York in Vengeance as you get an aural one in Illmatic. Less into the big moments, Vengeance is also more consistently pulse-racing, and as with Illmatic is more for the thinking man (c’mon, like you haven’t tried to re-create that Gallon Jug puzzler in your head a million times?) than its counterpart. And appropriately, Holly is completely marginalized for Vengeance, a perfect analogue for an album with no love interest whatsoever.
Third Party Choice?: I don’t think there was anyone garish, boring and horrific enough in mid-90s rap for their fans to be into Die Hard 2. I think you have to wait until Master P and No Limit’s rise to power later in the decade for that.
*This is the third essay from Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs that I’ve based an article around. At this rate, I should get through the entire book by sometime in July 2011.