Finding The GOAT: Nas’ Stillmatic vs. J-Live’s The Best Part. 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.
In 2001, two New York MCs were fighting for survival in vastly different ways. For Nas, Stillmatic was a righting of the course for one of Hip-Hop’s elite lyricists and album-makers. For J-Live, The Best Part was an album that labels undervalued, but simply had to be heard by the masses. Both of these works feature critical contributions by gate-keeper DJ Premier, with Nas’ 90s impact very much informing J’s own breakthrough. As one album would go platinum, the other would nearly go out of print, thanks to strong sales. Although these LPs exist in different cosmoses, comparatively speaking, they are not only two of the best from 2001, they are two of the best of the era for NYC Hip-Hop. Only one can go forward (Click one then click “vote”).
Stillmatic by Nas
Following 1999’s Nastradamus, Nas was at one of his most vulnerable career points. Queensbridge finest’s fourth album was largely panned, as the lyricist veered into overt trend-chasing during confusing times in Rap. To make matters worse, while he fumbled, Jay Z was slyly and strategically there to usurp Nas from his post as a perceived New York Rap giant. With combative knocks at the door, Nas made Stillmatic with incredibly high stakes. The album studied the foundation of Nas’ Illmatic introduction, and built upon those vibes for the new millennium. Along the way, Nasir Jones found his essence, and exuded some of the most exciting, visceral, and charged music of his career. Not only did Nasty Nas tap the pool of genius, he restored his place near (if not at) the top of his class. After “The Takeover,” Nas ripped the sledgehammer from Jay’s symbolic hands, and made it a Friday fair-one. Although it is often considered in a different area code from its sacred predecessor, Stillmatic is as good, and original of a sequel as Rap has ever witnessed.
As Nas searched for meaningful things to say, he realized that all he needed was “One Mic.” At a time when many lyricists were pandering to club music and pop radio, Nas dimmed the lights for one of the most dramatic singles of the last 15 years. With a Phil Collins-like crescendo, “One Mic” was the kind of record that only Nas could make. He owned his creativity, and bucked the system with courage. Reuniting with mentor Large Professor, Nas’ concepts came back with a vengeance. “Rewind” was a suspense thriller, enveloped in the MC’s mafioso style, told in reverse—over a backwards-sounding beat. “You’re da Man” restored Nas to the 41st Side of things. Extra P’s evocative string-and-drums arrangement beckoned Nas’ ego to come alive against all of his suitors. The lucid, stream of consciousness showed that underneath the silk and velour, Nas was living out his dreams “since ‘Barbecue.’” Just as Tupac had done years prior, Nas carved out hits from talking about his life and times. “Got Urself A…” placed Nas in the symbolic drivers seat of Tony Soprano. There, he identified his enemies, vices, challenges, and own place at the top. However, in surging ahead, Nas beautifully went backwards, literally and figuratively. The DJ Premier reunion, “2nd Childhood” allowed Nas to go back to his humble, modest days. In revisiting a bygone, pre-9/11 New York City, and his own innocence, Nas channeled his swagger and trademark introspection. Shaking off radio pressures and demands, Nas made a platinum album that appeased fans, critics, and allowed him to stand down all stick-up status seekers. Although he perceived himself as a king, Nas’ purist approach to Stillmatic positioned him as an underdog, only adding to his mystique and legacy.
Album Number: 5
Released: December 18, 2001
Label: Ill Will/Columbia/Sony Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #5 (certified gold, January 2002; certified platinum, January 2002)
Song Guests: AZ, Mary J Blige, Amerie, Keon Bryce, Bravehearts (Jungle, Wiz, & Horse), Salaam Remi
Song Producers: (self), Large Professor, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Ron Browz, Salaam Remi, Swizz Beatz, Trackmasters (Tone & Poke), Baby Paul, Mike Risko, Chucky Thompson, Precision, Megahertz, Lofey, Hangmen 3 (Benzino, Jeff 2x, & Johnny Bananas)
The Best Part by J-Live
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Brooklyn, New York MC/DJ/producer J-Live plugged away at his debut album. Signed to Raw Shack Records, and later London Records, the album built. Justice Allah’s LP sprawled to boast production work from the same capable hands known for acclaimed work with Nas, De La Soul, Black Star, and Gang Starr. As The Best Part delayed into the 2000s, J-Live would maintain his status as a top Underground act, while teaching English to middle-schoolers in BK. Upon taking his recordings independent, The Best Part was self-released, and lived up to its name. For an album about one’s love of Hip-Hop, this 2001 release is a “true-school” gold standard. J-Live and his dream team of producers delivered an album as much as six years in the making, that managed to sound brand new, refreshing, and distinctly exciting. As seemingly every MC making a fully-formed album in Y2K had a hook, a gimmick, or a backstory, J-Live wagered his appeal squarely in his abilities, and love of the art.
“Wax Paper,” produced by Prince Paul, was nimble storytelling. Referencing the same chemistry heard in Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on Doggystyle, Paul and Justice waxed a dynamic story that was part crime thriller, part Hip-Hop allegory. “Don’t Play” was a melodic warning shot from the sharp elbows of the crowded NYC scene. 88 Keys gave J a whimsical Jazz riff and playful vocal, as the MC used his impeccable timing and sharp cadence to ward off trespassers. “Braggin’ Rights Revisited” updated a live routine of J-Live rapping and scratching at the same damn time. Although a rookie in the eyes of many, the triple-threat was gunning for the circle occupied by Diamond D, Large Professor, Large Professor and a select few others. “True School Anthem” justified J-Live’s place in the culture. Not a throwback, but an MC raised on the classics, J-Live presented high-brow Hip-Hop at an advanced level. “Them That’s Not” watched J-Live increase his rhyme pattern and delivery, almost machine-like, while delivering an impeccable story about the rise and fall of an MC who sold out. As a DJ would increase the pitch, Live could do naturally—right in step with Grap Luva’s beat. However, although he was an Everyman artist, J was not just rapping about Rap. “Get The Third” launched a multi-album series, following J-Live’s romantic dealings, at a deeply intimate level. Teaming with DJ Premier, J-Live hung in with the giants. “The Best Part” was the product of a die-hard Rap fan achieving his dreams. Just as Mos Def and Non Phixion did, the merger certified J-Live as an MC worthy of the same knighting as Jay Z, Jeru The Damaja, and The LOX. In whole, The Best Part felt like an album made by a patient Hip-Hop Head. J-Live’s patience and perseverance was not a theme in the album lyrics. Rather, to quote another Jay, the MC “just stayed ready” when his opportunity knocked. Apart from the Rawkus, Def Jux, and Fat Beats movements, J-Live was a one-man triple-threat who lived out his own Shawshank Redemption. Fifteen years later, The Best Part is what made the career possible.
Album Number: 1
Released: May 1, 2001
Label: Triple Threat Productions/7Heads Entertainment
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): N/A
Song Guests: Asheru, Probe.dms
Song Producers: (self), DJ Premier, 88 Keys, DJ Spinna, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, Emmai Alaquiva, Grap Luva, Probe.dms, Chris Catalyst, David Kennedy
So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.