It's an uncomfortable fact that, deep down, a good percentage of hip-hop scholars really want to be emcees. Born voyages into some cringe-worthy moments when writers try to seamlessly code-switch between contemporary black vernacular and academic-speak, a feat only Dyson has perfected. Most other writers end up looking as contrived as that kid who brought a written rhyme into a cipher and passed it off as freestyle. By "trees," one writer helpfully explains with an ellipsis, she means marijuana. Uh, thanks for the clarification.
The premature declaration of hip-hop's demise in Born's introduction casts a shadow over the entire book. The only problem with this view, which often happens to coincide exactly with the point at which a given rap critic creeps toward middle age, is that it's perennial. (Even Nas himself has pronounced hip-hop dead.) As rapper Common reminds us in the book's foreword, his own nostalgic eulogy for hip-hop's artistic integrity, "I Used to Love H.E.R.," was released the same year Illmatic ushered in hip-hop's East Coast Renaissance. And the hits of 1994 kept on coming. The Notorious B.I.G.'s hectic and haunting album Ready to Die changed rap forever and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik foreshadowed Outkast's critical and commercial success. The following year, Tupac Shakur struck platinum from prison with Me Against The World. And two years after Illmatic, a little-known emcee named Jay-Z dropped his first album, Reasonable Doubt.
As most of you know I've pretty much aged out of the music. I think that's fine. But those of over 30 need to be careful not to confuse the music dying for us, with the music dying for the world.
That said, lyrically, it really doesn't get much better than Illmatic. When I was a kid, I thought only better (lyrically) things would follow. I think that was a function of me not really understanding why most people were listening to hip-hop. Sure some of us obsessed over the words, but Dre basically had it right--"Ya'll don't wanna hear me, you just wannna dance." That's basically been the case from jump. Great lyrics were a beautiful and important side-effect, but a side-effect nonetheless.