Nas’ Illmatic vs. GZA’s Liquid Swords. Which Is Better?

One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

Both Nas and GZA made powerful 1991 introductions, courtesy of a feature and an album, respectively. By the mid-1990s, each had skyrocketing status. For Nas, his Illmatic elicited some of the greatest anticipation for a new artist, especially from the East Coast. Liquid Swords was unadulterated Rap, with a visionary MC and a completely devoted producer. Both of these releases would earn their platinum distinctions in the 2000s, only a fraction of their true appeal and impact. Both albums are perfect unions of brilliant rhymes and innovative beats. Today, these mid-’90s hallmarks face off with only one able to advance (Click one then click “vote”).

illmatic cover

Illmatic by Nas

In only 10 tracks, Nas mounted a masterpiece in his early 1994 debut. The rugged-yet-introspective 20-year old from the Queensbridge Houses had been plugging away at his debut for nearly three years, constantly refining while studying the masters such as Rakim and Kool G Rap. A raspy-voiced, rhythmic MC, Nas also had esteemed sonic assistance from the likes of mentor Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and even manager MC Serch. With less than 40 minutes of album time, Illmatic was born into the universe as a great showing of early ’90s street New York imagery, an actualized Rap dream, and glimmering moments of the culture’s newest microphone prophet. Nasir Jones was clearly a vessel for the late ’80s-early ’90s’ promise, and an ensemble of greats gave this Columbia Records LP their all to ensure that he would be the next great one.

Illmatic delivers on many levels, despite its relatively small confines. Songs like “Halftime,” “Represent,” and “NY State Of Mind” are rugged extensions of the Nas heard on Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, but as his own band-leader. These are the raw Rap tracks where an MC matched his impeccable timing with evocative wordplay about the cruel world as he saw it. “Life’s A Bitch” would prove how Nas could speak to the minds and attitudes of his people, with greater things to say on simple subjects than most. Quickly, the young man from the 41st Side stood as an ambassador for not just himself, but a culture and a generation. This was also true in the mainstream-tinged “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” With a Michael Jackson sample, and Extra P’s surgeon-like arrangements, Nas found a hook to put his ill vernacular in a song that could cross over and grab new ears. Like Snoop Dogg across the country, Nas was at the forefront of his ability to bring an entire village to an album. Whether it was the slain Ill Will, the incarcerated Cormega, or kid brother Jungle, Nas made his project world into a diorama—between the compelling flows and mosaic beats. This was not just Hip-Hop, it was street reporting, and a return to undeniable authenticity when MTV music video era Rap was clearly favoring the sensationalized.

Album Number: 1
Released: April 19, 1994
Label: Ruffhouse/Columbia Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #18 (certified gold, January 1996; certified platinum, December 2001)
Song Guests: AZ, Olu Dara, Q-Tip, Pete Rock
Song Producers: (self), Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., Faith Newman


Liquid Swords by GZA

The first Wu-Tang Clan artist with a solo album, GZA (f/k/a The Genius) applied his journey with the crew to his sophomore LP, Liquid Swords. The Brooklyn, New York lyrical technician went to The Shogun Assassin for inspiration, and came out with a samurai’s precision for imagination, wordplay, and vocal style. Gary Grice was not the flashiest member of the suddenly mainstream-beloved Clan, but he used his first release with Geffen Records to prove he may be the most clever. “Cold World” was a Cormac McCarthy-like account of images in describing an inner-city apocalypse. “4th Chamber” was a brilliant extension of ’93’s “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber Part II.” MCs flexed their originality, with guests including RZA, a breaking Killah Priest, and the outstanding Ghostface Killah. “Labels” was a cerebral approach to concept tracks, with GZA kicking off a series that he would maintain in future solos.

A major hand in Liquid Swords‘ penetrating impact on Hip-Hop is its production. RZA was perhaps in his finest form as he approached GZA’s first post-Enter The Wu-Tang album, without any pressures to crossover. This album is a jarring listen, with fuzzed out-synths (“4th Chamber”), deft needle-drops (“Shadowboxin'”), and futuristic, jam sessions (“Killah Hills 10304”). GZA succumbed to zero mainstream expectations. Instead, the former Cold Chillin’ artist made a grim, extremely dense affair that showed how Shaolin and Brooknam were not that different than Feudal Japan. In a mid-1990s where Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and Lakim Shabazz were not as active in releasing music, The Genius stood up and put compound rhymes, advance flows, and didactic MC’ing back on the hearth of Hip-Hop. Years later, Liquid Swords remains razor sharp, and a platinum badge of artistic courage. Although it’s hard to find another commercially successful album in the last 20 years as complex as this one, it has many purists looking at its wake, and saying, “Can it all be so simple?”

Album Number: 2 (solo)
Released: November 7, 1995
Label: Geffen/MCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #9 (certified gold, January 1996; certified platinum, September 2015)
Song Guests: RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Method Man, U-God, Killah Priest, Dreddy Kruger, Life
Song Producers: RZA, 4th Disciple

So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums