Remixing what a vast majority of Hip Hop fans call a “classic” album is dangerous. Even attempting to put a spin on something slightly lower on the hierarchy of epic music (on say, the “notable” level of musical quality) is a gamble. Many have tried, and few managed to live up to the original that they chose to confront. Achieving a rare feat, Detroit-based emcee Elzhi seems to have tackled one of the most esteemed LP’s rap has seen to date, and turned it into his own. And for once, the end result sounds damn good.
Nas’ Illmatic showcased the Queens spitter at arguably his rawest. His delivery and flow seemed effortless as he spun a tale of gritty New York City living, with an incredible production lineup only positively accentuating the project. There was little, if any, room for improvement on Nasir Jones’ LP, thus leaving Elzhi with quite a challenge when he chose to recreate the 1994 standout album and turn it into his own ELmatic. But this is where Elzhi got it right – rather than try to improve upon the original, it’s rather obvious that he merely personalized it. Elzhi does not try to outshine Nas, rather he reinterprets the tales of the Queensbridge Houses and tells them from a Detroit point of view. He channels Nas’ lyrical style – from his delivery and flow to the actual bars from Illmatic – and pulls it off so successfully that one would think he was born rapping that way. “New York State of Mind” merely turns into “Detroit State of Mind,” with Elzhi’s gangster dreams being fueled by bottles of Rose´, minus the Tec-9 weaponry. “Represent” shares Nas’ “straight up, shit is real” sentiment, yet Elzhi strays from Nas’ formula on cuts like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” which doesn’t boast Elzhi excelling and prevailing. The balance is key. Elzhi isn’t completely jacking Nas’ style, but he utilizes the similarities between the two emcees’ viewpoints to tell his own tale.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Illmatic and ELmatic lies within the instrumentals. Produced by Detroit’s Will Sessions band, ELmatic takes the beats that Nas fans have grown to love, and enhances them with live instrumentation. The original samples still remain front and center, never losing the basic essence of the sound that fueled Illmatic, yet the sound is different enough to be refreshing and have it feel like Elzhi didn’t simply rhyme over recycled beats. Combined with his impressive lyricism, the overall sonic feel of ELmatic is worthy of multiple replays.
The once member of Slum Village not only made Illmatic his own, but more importantly honored the original and did it justice. In the process, the similarities between Nas’ upbringing in Queens and Elzhi’s life in Detroit become evident, and it is this common ground of experiences that bridges the gap between New York City’s past and Detroit’s present. Sure, “One Time For Your Mind” may be missing, and the sequence of the tracks doesn’t match up between the two approaches, but it’s just another example of Elzhi reaching that balance between the original and his take on it. The bottom line is that Elzhi took on an intimidating task and managed to prove that he can stand up to classic material.
DX Consensus: “Free Album” (the highest possible praise for a mixtape).
Listen to Elzhi ELMatic