96: Nas – NY State of Mind (1994)
A lot of early ‘90s rap feels hopelessly dated, trapped in the context of the decade and reliant on either novelty or shock value (or for the likes of 2 Live Crew, both). Nas acted as a sharp rebuttal to that and to the macho hedonism of L.A. gangsta rap; in comparison to The Chronic and Doggystyle, the harshness of Illmatic was a jolt to the system. Here, Nas essentially re-defines East Coast rap as the thoughtful, more serious alternative to the non-stop party going on in L.A. while reasserting his hometown’s status as a Mecca of the genre. With that in mind, “NY State of Mind” kicks the door down in a huge way. Nas’ impeccable flow and hard-hitting lyricism are at their finest here. “NY State of Mind” is evocative and impactful in ways that rappers today still struggle to reach.
Nas paints a picture of life growing up in the Queensbridge Houses that’s as full of bleakness as it is of bravado. He creates a cast of characters, from the drug dealers set up on the street corners to the baseheads selling cheap shit to get another fix. Meanwhile, Nas is our hero perpetually on the run, trying to escape the danger that could come from anywhere. Throughout, Nas is unafraid, but he doesn’t paint his gangsta dreams with a rose-colored brush. He breathlessly describes life in his world– a world that many listeners would have known nothing about– as it is.
Later on, Nas would be dogged by challenges to the reality of his lyrics, but “NY State of Mind” slaps those criticisms back before they even arrived. Nas never really claims to be hard; it’s just a part of life in Queensbridge, life for a kid who was looking for– and eventually found– an escape. – Kevin Korber
95: Neutral Milk Hotel – Oh Comely (1998)
The sadness of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a strange thing. This is an unquestionably crushing album, with an Anne Frank-inspired backstory and folky breakdowns that could out-dirge Godspeed You! Black Emperor in a fourth of the time. But it’s hard to describe why the whole enterprise is so damn sad. Much of Jeff Mangum’s lyrics read like nonsensical diary entries: semen that stains the mountaintops and pianos filled with flames. They rely more on the emotions conjured by such feverish images rather than on straightforward storytelling. And for that, its sadness works like a fog, rolling in and enveloping rather than directly grabbing for depression like a sword. “Oh Comely” carried that motif, but thanks to its eight-minute length and relative lack of orchestration, it becomes the black hole at the center of an already pitch-dark album.
Over only a handful of chords, Mangum half-remembers awful displays of vulgar sex. A “terrible scene that was doing her thing on your chest” or a father making “fetuses with flesh licking ladies.” There’s any number of meanings that could be derived from Mangum’s puzzle-box, but there’s a sense of innocence evaporating. With the obtuse imagery, Mangum seems to be invading the eyes of a child, uncomprehending of the sights of pornography but deeply aware of some secret shame attached to it all. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s guilt-soaked sexual politics are well-noted, but it was never as devastating as “Oh Comely,” a song made all the more powerful for the palpable sense of confusion and fear that hangs over every inch of the recording. Death becomes ever-present by the halfway mark, Mangum seeing visions of untold graves and hundreds of decomposing bodies. When he does become direct, just before a mournful horn joins his wailing, it marks the emotional center of the entire recording. Between finding himself “inside some stranger’s stomach” and escaping a fetid trailer park, Mangum has one unfulfillable desire:“I wish I could save her.” – Nathan Stevens