Nas’ Illmatic vs. A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Which Is Better?

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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 Final 4, things have never been more crucial—as your vote dictates the annals of AFH history.

Two albums from Queens, New York compete at a shot to be the king. Nas’ Illmatic has the strongest winning average (77%) approaching the Final 4. A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders is in deep (and extra) consideration by legions of Hip-Hop fans, following last week’s death of Phife Dawg. These albums are held in the highest regard, with overlapping involvement from Q-Tip and Large Professor on both. Nas’ debut boasts a street-savvy wisdom and deeply inventive delivery over cohesive production from five producers that sounded as one. A.T.C.Q.’s third LP may be their most balanced—with all three members shining in equal light, and songs light and deep alike. Contemporaries, these artists and these albums elevated the medium of the Hip-Hop album in the mid-1990s. The winner heads to Monday’s (April 4) championship round, so this one is for keeps. 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

MidnightMarauders

Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest

By 1993, Hip-Hop groups were hyper-aware of their legacy, as they challenged the laws of gravity. Coming out of the 1980s, few groups beyond Run-D.M.C. and De La Soul proved to be capable of three great albums in their catalog. And even those were not without arguments. A Tribe Called Quest, who broke in during 1990, weighed their winning streak entering Midnight Marauders, and won tenfold. The album followed the lauded Low End Theory with a carefully packaged, highly-cohesive feel and theme. The Jazz elements and breezy narratives continued, as Tribe remained ahead of the curve.

Midnight Marauders demonstrated growth for Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. However, in expanding, the Native Tongues found the spotlight—in their transformative first Top 10 album. Single “Electric Relaxation” beautifully merged Jazz and Electronic sources, for the perfect seduction. Cleverly sliced melodies drove the album, with groovy cuts like “Oh My God,” “Lyrics To Go,” and “We Can Get Down.” At a time when Jazz-Rap was a common theme on both coasts, A.T.C.Q. traveled to the next dimension and left no road map. The album featured smart, compelling lyrics that were far from preachy or taking themselves too seriously. Bars alluded to race relations, a changing New York City, and pressures of the Rap game, but songs seemingly didn’t. This LP was a casual, cohesive listen—which made it deeply accessible to the non-Rap consumer. The Abstract’s musings, Phife’s whimsicality, and Ali’s finest scratch clinic made A Tribe Called Quest one of the most consistent Hip-Hop acts of the first half of the 1990s. As the clock struck twelve, Midnight Marauders may be Tribe’s finest hour.

Album Number: 3
Released: November 9, 1993
Label: Jive Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #8 (certified gold, January, 1994; certified platinum, January 1995)
Song Guests: Dave (p/k/a Trugoy), Large Professor, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Wiggins
Song Producers: (self), Large Professor, Skeff Anslem

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

Related: Other Finding The GOAT: Album Battles.