By sweeneykovar | May 15th, 2011
By now, even college professors and red state moose farmers are aware that Nas’ Illmatic is considered the Sistine Chapel of hip hop. A classic that captures a fleeting period — the time of a young New York ghetto-dweller — through some of the most raw, innovative, and influential songs that have ever been laid to wax. So why would anyone ever try to cover it? Hip hop has never been a genre that takes kindly to covering others’ work, unless its a sample.
Enter Elzhi. Probably the most underrated lyricist in the truest sense of the word. The Motown native was introduced to the world on Dilla’s classic Welcome 2 Detroit album, where his intense verbosity and lyrical agility stood out immediately.
After spending years as part of the influential Slum Village collective, bad business within the group and its notoriously wack record company finally drove Elzhi to stand on his own two feet. His 2009 album, The Preface, was good, but didn’t quite pack the earth-shattering bang that everyone expected from El.
Now contractually free to spread his wings, Elzhi reintroduces himself with a very bold move, remaking Illmatic in its entirety. A project spearheaded by DJ House Shoes almost three years ago, the results are sure to shut up all but the most stubborn of haters.
Instead of laying new lyrics over old instrumentals, Elzhi called on Detroit band Will Sessions to replay and recreate the entire album, adding the warmth and nuance of live instrumentation to the classic. Lyrically, El keeps up with arguably the best perfomance on a hip-hop album. Nerds will have a field day; Elzhi often keeps the same cadence and rhyming pattern as the original song, altering the content of the lyrics to reflect his own experiences and situations like in the “NY State of Mind” remake, “Detroit State of Mind.”
My favorite is the remake of “Life’s A Bitch,” the one Illmatic song that had Nas sharing the mic with another rapper, AZ. Elzhi chose Royce Da 5’9, probably one of the only rappers from Detroit that can keep up with El. The ending of the song is a nice twist on the original as well, complementing the trumpet solo by Nas’ father on the original (still duplicated here) with Stokley Williams of Mint Condition performing The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love”, the sample to the song.