Finding The GOAT Album: Nas’ Illmatic vs. LL Cool J’s Radio. 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 the canon of great Hip-Hop albums, several of the most impactful came from Queens, New York. Of that select set, LL Cool J’s Radio and Nas’ Illmatic are perhaps the greatest. Both debut albums, released a decade apart, these works studied the greats and ushered in rhyme innovation at once. Both MCs found new subjects to rap about for their eras, teaming with revolutionary producers to execute those messages. Although both albums are platinum pieces, neither is the artist’s best-selling work. Instead, these unforgettable introductions laid concrete foundations for each artist to follow. So who in Queens reigns supreme? Only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click (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


Radio by LL Cool J

L.L. Cool J’s (as was stylistically presented) Radio is a benchmark Rap album. In one fell swoop, it introduced a solo artist, a sound—and dominated the space. From Kane to Kanye, everybody since wanted the kind of debut fanfare that LL showed to be possible. The 1985 Def Jam Records release delivered a St. Albans Queens, New York MC with an unrivaled energy to command audiences. This LP owned its greatness on songs like “Rock The Bells” and “I Need A Beat (Remix).” In these moments, James Todd Smith strained his vocals to assert the fact that he was second to none in position or innovation. Moreover, the album allowed Cool J to show his range. Slow and sweet tunes like “I Want You” and “I Can Give You More” were unashamed to position the rapper as a sensitive sex symbol. There was no incubator pop on the Rick Rubin and DJ Jazzy Jay-produced debut, and yet LL Cool J proved immediately to have the biggest and youngest audience in Hip-Hop.

Engaging male and female audiences, Hip-Hop Heads and newcomers together, Radio was the perfect composite of “1985 cool.” Smooth talking, fast-rapping, and hard rhyming, LL Cool J was everything at once—never pandering or forcing his microphone. Rick Rubin led the charge in presenting a booming bass, hard-edge back-beat that understood Cool J’s skill, potential, and range. Cut Creator’s fast hands moved the crowd in an album that did reach “radio,” along with video—while never losing the streets. In many ways, LL Cool J followed Radio‘s balanced blueprint for the next 30 years—making songs that exude hardness and those that showed sensitivity, right beside each other.

Album Number: 1
Released: November 18, 1985
Label: Def Jam/Columbia Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #46 (certified gold, April 1986; certified platinum April 1988)
Song Guests: Cut Creator, Russell Simmons
Song Producers: Rick Rubin, DJ Jazzy Jay

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

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