The Final Battle: Nas’ Illmatic vs. Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). 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. At last, the championship battle round has been reached—deciding which Hip-Hop album lives on in the annals of AFH reader history as the greatest of all time.

Released less than six months apart, Nas’ Illmatic and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) are two legendary debut works of early ’90s hardcore Hip-Hop. Nas introduced himself as an old soul at the age of 20. His LP elevated Rap’s excellence in flow, along with insight to what portrayed life as wondrous and fickle at once. The admittedly shy Queens, New Yorker was stepping into adulthood as a man with depth, swagger, and enough grit under his fingernails. For the Clan, the nine-man New York City collective swarmed on the scene with filthy break-based drum tracks, and incredible lyrical synergy. While all the Wu swordsmen distinguished themselves with non-conventional styles, the unit moved with a martial synchronicity, and attacked the mic with calculation. Each album advanced to the championship round with 67% winning margins. These platinum albums battle for supremacy, just as they did in mid-’90s discourse. With cult followings (and presumably more overlapping fans than most pairings), this clash lives up to its epic magnitude. Only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click (Click one then click “vote”). Voting ends Wednesday (April 6) at 5pm EDT.

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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

enterthewutangcover

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by Wu-Tang Clan

In late 1993, Wu-Tang Clan bum-rushed the show when they brought their own menacing cacophonous raucous. Enter The Wu-Tang is a tour de force of rugged raps, filthy beats, and a style that made Hip-Hop’s early ’90s elite get out of the way, handing over the mic. RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Masta Killa, Method Man, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were against the odds when they brought nine bodies to a Loud/RCA Records-backed album, and made all seem as organized as a rank-and-file military branch. With every MC offering something different, each vocalist distinguished himself with skill, vocal tone, and flow. From acts like The Rebel I.N.S. taking on lion’s share roles to M.K.’s lone verse, the family did no favors to each other—and showed its own agitated quarrels in the interludes. Although they had their own internal dynamics, the Wu brought an unrivaled sense of family pride to outsiders. Songs like smash single “C.R.E.A.M.” and follow-up “Can It All Be Simple” proved that the common theme of hardships made this unit a pack of hungry wolves who resented aristocratic peers. Save for GZA and RZA, all the MCs were burgeoning to wax since 1992’s “Protect Ya Neck.” However, from O.D.B.’s “Shame On A Nigga” timing, to the “Method Man” routine all presented styles that felt like they were bottled in 1988, but fermenting, and getting all the more intoxicating while waiting for their chance. On one hand, Wu-Tang was futuristic in their dismissal of conventions. On the other, this was a head-trip back to the days of the late ’80s underground—battling in a smoke-filled train car.

36 Chambers, as the album is often affectionately called, is a beautiful testament to RZA’s visionary gift. In addition to delivering the most lucid, razor-sharp verses of his career, Robert Diggs made an album that sounded electric, alive, and dangerous. Break-beat arrangements on songs like “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit” and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber – Part II” were accentuated with organs, special effects, and muted horns. While Dr. Dre was out in Los Angeles, setting chronic highs to three-wheel motion, RZA laced his jagged basslines with audio angel dust. With its rough texture, the album is incredibly cohesive, making skipping implausible if not impossible. Enter The Wu-Tang captivated Hip-Hop. It restored the comparative nature of over-stuffed Rap crews. It made every minute of an album feel precious internally and externally. The LP also made the Hip-Hop act feel like a militia, an outlaw posse, or a flash mob of witty, unpredictable voices with natural game. This LP not only served its nine creators with plush careers that followed, it made the industry take closer notice of what was really going on in the streets. For 15 years, Staten Island was the ignored borough. Also with MCs from the Bronx and Brooklyn, the Clan made the short-sighted Manhattan labels not only scared, but surrounded.

Album Number: 1 (as a group)
Released: November 9, 1993
Label: Loud/RCA Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #41 (certified gold, March 1994; certified platinum, May 1995)
Song Guests: 4th Disciple
Song Producers: (self)

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

Related: Other Finding The GOAT: Album Battles.