Illmatic XX, released this past April 15th is a 20th anniversary double disc re-issue of the original Illmatic, an undeniably classic record that’s withstood the test of time. As such, the focus here will be on disc 2 of the set, comprised of the previously unreleased “I’m a Villain”, a 1993 radio appearance by Nas, Grand Wizard & co. on “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” where he and his crew do the standard shout outs and freestyle session interview over a series of beats, and 8 remixes of the original tracks.
Both “I’m a Villain” and the freestyle session feature a hungry, pre-Illmatic release Nas. On “I’m a Villain” Nas flexes hardcore rhymes in his patented syncopated, words past the margin flow, over a Jae Supreme produced beat. It’s not a bad track, lyrically stellar as one would expect from a young Nas. But the beat is a bit too bouncy and loopy, especially given that many of Nas’ bars while not overtly gangsta, do have plenty of street rap edge to them so the track ultimately comes across as a bit uneven in terms of feel. The freestyle session is a cool listen, especially for nostalgia purposes but it doesn’t have much replay value. It’s fun at first to hear a young Nas promote the upcoming release of Illmatic, big up his homies, and then get into a freestyle session with his crew. Nas’ buddies aren’t bad on the mic, most of them using solid, prepared rhymes to keep the session moving. Nas’ first rhyme is a true freestyle, and unfortunately not his best moment. He hadn’t warmed up yet and came across sloppily. After letting his buddies get on the mic for a few flows, he comes back with some rhymes from Illmatic, then later on finishes up with more off-the top freetyles that were much better delivered than the intro bars. That said, it’s ultimately just a blunted interview session re-packaged as unreleased material for Nas enthusiast and whereas that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not something I would imagine most people are going to play more than once in a blue.
As far as the 8 remixes go, some are better than others, with some range as far as how true each remix stuck to its original counterpart. My favorite (by far) is “It Ain’t Hard To Tell (The Stink Mix)”, produced by Large Professor and remixed by Dave Scratch. This mix uses a tough KRS One vocal on the hook and samples the bass line from 70s funk band The Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day” to give the track a much funkier, edgier, bad-ass feel than the original (which by comparison masterfully utilizes a sample from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” resulting in a more smoothed-out, laid-back, jazzy sound). While the original is one of my top 5 favorite Rap sons of all time, one of those tracks I rarely shuffle past on my iPod, this Stink Mix is very good and I’ve been finding myself listening to a lot since I first heard it. If you’re curious about the album, but skeptical about purchasing a re-packaged classic, I would recommend spending a buck on this particular remix as it does the best job in comparison to any of the other remixes of successfully re-inventing an already classic track (no small task by the way).
As much as I like the Stink Mix, the other 2 versions of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” don’t do as much for me. The better of the 2 is the ‘original remix’ if you will… Produced by Large Professor. He uses a sample from Biz Markie’s “Goin’ Off’ and loops vocal samples in the hook as only Primo can to deliver a credible, fun, organic sounding remix, but not something that you’re going to want to have an impulse to play very often. The Laidback Remix, produced by The Creators bends the baseline from James Brown’s “Funky President” in a similar fashion to how it was used on Run DMC’s “Down With The Kings” (albeit at a slower tempo). The result isn’t bad but comes across flat in comparison to not only the original but its Stink Mix counterpart.
For the most part the other remixes on the album are all solid interpretations of the originals that are worth a few listens. “Halftime (The Butcher Remix)” is another standout in that producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo keeps the baseline and overall sonic feel of the original intact, but layers down the beat, using less powerful horns on the hook, and adds a few percussive elements to give it a touch of hard core. “One Love (LG Main Mix) is another mix that works because it keeps notable elements of the original intact (the bells and Q-Tip on the hook specifically). While I like the different, more soulful approach to the beat on this version, the added chorus of vocals harmonizing the ‘One Love’ lyric over Q-Tip’s vocal doesn’t work for me and dilutes an otherwise stellar remix. The One L Main Mix of “One Love” goes with an eerier, piano-driven beat and a couplet driven rap chorus (“One L! to the O. V. E!”). The complete shift away from the fun, head-bouncy elements that make the original such a classic just don’t measure up, even compared to other remixes on the disc. “The World Is Yours (Tip Mix)” is mellow and not bad, but nothing over the top, although I do like the extra adlibbed couplets on the hooks. The Arsenal Mix of “Life’s A Bitch” goes in a different direction sonically than the original (more street, less jazzy) but it works.
All in all, if you’re a Nas fan, it’s definitely worth picking up a few of these remixes and maybe even “I’m a Villain”. I wouldn’t pick up the entire set however, unless for some reason you’ve lost your original Illmatic. That said, if you’re a younger cat who hasn’t listened to much Nas (shame on you) or someone who’s newly exposed to Hip Hop and are still learning the genre, you may as well spend a few extra bucks on Illmatic XX and give that first disc a million lessons, while chiming in with disc 2 every so often.
3 out of 5 Limes