Nostalgia is a tricky thing. While it can be used as a reference point by artists to extend and offer their own ideas, it can also it can be a leaning post for lazy artists attempting to piggy back our collective consciousness for chance to be noticed. It takes a lot of hard work to actually create something artistically worthwhile that is steeped in familiar material.
In a shout out on Slum Village alumni Elzhi’s reimaging of Illmatic, Detroit legend Houseshoes heralds the project. He says that it makes sense the Elzhi has recreated Illmatic, and… he’s kind of right. Elzhi sounds a little like Nas during that time period, and while Nas may have been one of the first purveyors of Alternative hip hop during a time when Hardcore was king, Elzhi has been one of the few artists competently carrying the torch that Nas helped light. But even if Elzhi is the most reasonable choice for this task, the “cover album” is a relatively new thing in Hip-Hop. Beck can recreate a classic rock album and no one will flinch, but once you start to rebuild a classic Hip-Hop album, maybe THE classic Hip- Hop album, it’s easy to fail: even harder to prove that you aren’t style biting.
Thankfully, Elzhi avoids these trappings effectively. By using a live band to recreate the beats, and using the original material as more of a spring board for his own rhymes and concepts, Elzhi makes Elmatic his own. Whether Elzhi is reminiscing about his upbringing and influences on “Memory Lane” or weaving narratives about intimate physical and mental violence in his home city On “Detroit State of Mind” Elzhi may use the spirit of the tracks, but it never really feels like he isn’t being true to himself. His ideas are much more microscopic than Nas’, even when he, infrequently, lifts the original lyrics (Rapper’s I monkey flip ‘em/gorilla stomp ‘em /I’m out here with the dealer’s pumpin’.)
Up and coming Detroit soul band, Will Sessions provides competent recreations of all of the Nas beats. The band doesn’t just slavishly stick to the original sample loops and drum patterns, but attempts to play them as a live band would, stretching them and adding extra flourishes. The crisp organ stabs and double bass plucks on “Represent” are an interesting reworking of the murky sample used by DJ Primer, while the cleanly recorded and mixed Jazz piano on “The World is Yours” is simply a pleasant touch. Instrumentals are also extended with mixed results. “Life’s A Bitch” is stretched, with a clearly Miles Davis inspired trumpet solo and bits of “Yearning for Your Love” by the GAP Band. One the other hand, tracks like “One Love” are uninterestingly extended and it feels like Elzhi and the band were just trying to beef up the tape’s run time.
Elzhi’s a pretty good rapper, and even though he may not always reach Nas’ lyricism, he certainly comes close. There are plenty of little gems to mine; “My Soul Caliber is like Namco” for instance, will have nerds chuckling and quoting for a few months, and even if concepts don’t always work (the transportation puns on “Memory Lane” may elicit a few groans) they don’t really cause the project to falter. If the goal of this exercise was for Elzhi to tie up the loose ends between the Alternative Hip hop of the 90’s and the Underground hip hop of the last decade, he’s done a very nice job. Nas’s classic was extremely influential to both the sounds and the words of the underground scene, and Elzhi’s Elmatic encapsulates this fantastically. Elmatic is not a gimmicky project at all. It is the work of an artist using his influences as a reference to engage his audience in a new way, looking back at the past, but not leaning on it.
You can download Elmatic here