Nas’ Illmatic vs. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Which Is Better?

Last September, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: what is the greatest Rap Album Of All-Time? “Finding The GOAT Album” has considered more than 120 albums from the 80s, 90s and 2000s (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. Now that you have decided the Elite 8, things are critical—as is your vote.

Released just over a year apart, Nas’ Illmatic and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… exemplify not only what made the mid-1990s so incredible, but why the Hip-Hop album is essential. Each New York MC used his solo debut to take the listener to a very specific place, with so much detail, conviction and rawness that the smell, sight, sound, and grit was visceral. This is major label Hip-Hop that went against industry grain, and thrived through its own respective reality. Notably, Nas would appear as a guest on “the Purple Tape,” showing the creative solidarity these MCs had before the era of makeshift features. To get this far, Nas has powerfully defeated two Wu-Tang Clan solo albums by others. Meanwhile, Rae’ just significantly bested a massive award-winning commercial favorite in the previous round. The march to the Final 4 is apparent in a battle that brings two undisputed classics to the cage-match of public opinion. Only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click (Click one then click “vote”).

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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


Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… by Raekwon

Compared to jump-off Enter The Wu-Tang, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was a lyrical zodiac. Staten Island’s Chef and co-star Ghostface Killah showed the underbelly of the Shaolin crew in a linear effort about hustling, surviving shootouts, and backing down impostors on the block. Whereas Wu-Tang’s group album delved into rising the Hip-Hop ranks, “The Purple Tape” as it is affectionately remembered, was pure cinema. With John Woo’s Killer and Scarface excerpts throughout, Chef Rae brought narrative Rap albums to a boiling point. With the Clansmen in the wings—using their Wu-Gambino aliases, this LP drew a clear line for how the parts of the Clan body operated outside of their sums. For Rae’ and Ghost’ it was straight “Criminology.” The two MCs spit it in a way that could not be held up in a court of law, but violated so many Rap conventions.

Like Kool Keith, Raekwon’s writing style was impressionistic. The MC gave listeners the benefit of the doubt of putting the puzzles together—making it an active experience. “Glaciers Of Ice” melted the brain, with a fast-paced flow, and an inventive world. “Knowledge God” took (album guest) Nas’ “One Love” concept, and rewrote it in a way that the guards could not understand. Corey Woods waxed tales of heists, cocaine abusers, and the five boroughs that Times Square tourists never knew existed. For such an innovative lyrical style, RZA complemented accordingly. O.B.4.C.L.‘s sound is quirky, whimsical, and completely original. “Incarcerated Scarfaces” is as careful of a RZA drum arrangement as ever, with The Abbott laying down a Jazz-informed line, with light accents that made Rae’s essay 100% touchable. “Ice Cream” was a planetary lifted loop that captured the essence of late ’90s Hip-Hop a handful of years before others reached the frontier. “Rainy Dayz” had that same feel, as RZA’s reportedly shut-in Staten studio year led to weed-scented, eerie loops that scored the verbal cinema from Shallah and G.F.K. This marriage of tone and luster made The Purple Tape a complete experience. The MCs and the producer raised the craft of Hip-Hop by ignoring conventions, despite commercial pressures and strong media interest. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is Rap royalty, not simply for the color of its cassette shell, but its slang editorial that propagated the next 20 years of style, substance, and attitude.

Album Number: 1 (solo)
Released: August 1, 1995
Label: Loud/RCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #4 (certified gold, October 1995)
Song Guests: Ghostface Killah, Nas, Method Man, RZA, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Popa Wu, 60 Second Assassin, Cappadonna, Blue Raspberry
Song Producers: RZA, Islord

So which is the better album? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Other Finding The GOAT: Album Battles.