As most of you know by now, one of my biggest consistent critiques of Continuum's 33 1/3 series rests in many of the books' piecemeal approach to their subject matter. Instead of providing a focused, unified analysis of an album through a particular lens, many books in the series work like buckshot. These books work from a mess of scattered ideas in the form of half-formed mini-analyses, histories, and interviews. Thankfully, these weaker books are the exceptions rather than the rule, and with Matthew Gasteier's book on Nas's Illmatic, we get another fine example of the rule. Rather than trying to tell his readers a little bit about everything related to Illmatic, Gasteier focuses his effort on a searching analysis of hip hop's various narratives.
In a series of chapters named after the album's various tensions ("Youth/Experience," "Death/Survival," "Fantasy/Reality," "Tradition/Revolution" etc...), Gasteier expertly blends historical accounts of New York hip hop and details of Nas's life and rise to hip hop fame in service of his literary reading of Illmatic as a sort of hip hop coming of age story, or in Gasteier's own words, "a portrait of the artist as a young black man" (29). Gasteier's reading of Illmatic relies heavily on the idea of narrative. In particular, the author focuses on identifying ways that Nas buys into that coming-of-age narrative while at the same time subverting the dominant narrative of 90's urban culture: "Hip hop, because of its obsession with the 'before' picture of its stars, depends almost entirely on the origin story" (30). Gasteier's discussion of origin stories in hip hop sheds light on the way the hip hop narrative works, and why so many people find it so appealing--the narrative is about authenticity and escape to a better life. Gasteier's discussion of inner-city violence--he points out that, in the late 90's "15-year-old black males in Washington D.C. had a staggering 1 in 12 chance of being murdered by the time they were 45" (36)--furthers his treatment of this theme through the assertion that "While there is certainly a great deal of violent and masculine posturing in hip hop, it is balanced with a deep reverence for the dead, the constant presence of those who have passed, and a strong if commercially muted commitment to ending the cycle of violence" (36). Although Gasteier's reading of Illmatic and hip hop in general sometimes feels like the thoughts of an outsider looking in, his characterization of the many tensions running through the album and genre help provide the art form with an often times overlooked gravity. Maybe that gravity is overlooked because it's taken for granted, or because we're desensitized to it, or because of sheer ignorance.
Following through on the promise of the context he provides, Gasteier ultimately makes some extremely optimistic claims about hip hop's ability to transform socio-economic realities through its decades of consciousness-raising:
Once [the contradiction that we are individuals with dreams, stifled by social, historical, and political bindings] is recognized, it does not seem so hard to understand where Nas's persona comes from, and how easily it can shift and bend at will. Nor does it seem unlikely to imagine that all of those kids who do understand that contradiction, no matter where they come from and how easily they personally can achieve the American dream, would have a perspective on their country that is far different from their parents'. This is the true revolution of hip hop, the one that has yet to play itself out. (80)
While I appreciate Gasteier's optimism, I find this assertion a bit difficult to completely buy into, especially considering, as Gasteier also points out, that much of mainstream hip hop has shifted away from realism to escapism. To these ends, Gasteier's Illmatic almost functions as the naively optimistic companion to Nas's Illmatic in that they both pull at the threads of hard-lived lives in a celebration of survival, only Nas comes off sounding world-weary and a bit desperate, while Gasteier sounds starry-eyed and hopeful. There's nothing wrong with hope or optimism, but Gasteier's reading, here, almost seems to undercut Illmatic's intensity and realism. That is to say, while Gasteier's analysis is expert, the conclusion ultimately draws from it feels a little too pat, too easy--the feel-good answer to Nas's (and hip hop's) perplexing questions.