Illmatic and the Crisis of Peaking Young

Is it better to peak early and produce something legendary, or build slowly and culminate in something merely excellent?

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

-A.E. Housman, “To An Athlete Dying Young”

I used to hustle, now all I do is relax and strive
When I was young, I was a fan of the Jackson 5
I drop jewels, wear jewels, hope to never run it,
With more kicks than a baby in a mother’s stomach
Nasty Nas has to rise cause I’m wise
This is exercise ’til the microphone dies
Back in ’83 I was an MC sparking
But I was too scared to grab the mikes in the park and
Kick my little raps cause I thought niggaz wouldn’t understand
And now in every jam I’m the fuckin man
I rap in front of more niggaz than in the slave ships
I used to watch C.H.I.P.S., now I load Glock clips

– Nas, “Halftime”

In 1994, hip hop artist Nas released the greatest hip hop album of all time. A genre which has since grown to encompass Ready to Die, All Eyez on Me, Enter the Thirty-Six Chambers, The Blueprint and Tha Carter has yet to produce anything which surpasses Illmatic. And it’s not just your correspondent who thinks so. The Source gave Illmatic five mics out of five the month it came out – one of only nine albums to receive such a score on first blush. Rolling Stone and Time also recognized it as a strong contribution, and passing years have only added to its acclaim.

Illmatic was Nas’s debut album.

Since 1994, Nas has released several more albums – Stillmatic, I Am …, God’s Son, Street’s Disciple and others. These albums have added a variety of tracks to the Nas catalog, from the inspirational (“If I Ruled the World“) to the bombastic (“Made You Look“). But none of these albums has received the overwhelming critical acclaim of Nas’s first sprint out the gate. Some critics have reacted with equanimity; some with disappointment. Thankfully Nas has not stopped producing.

But the question remains: what happened? Are critics holding Nas’s later work to too high a standard, judging everything as a letdown to the moving and lyrical genius of his first cut? Or is Nas a victim of his earliest success, producing polished but unexceptional work now that the hunger’s been taken from him? Certainly, either is possible.

Maybe there’s a third possibility, though. Maybe Nas already produced the greatest album he will ever produce. And maybe that’s all right.

The rise and fall coasting of Nas illustrates the dichotomy between artist-as-celebrity and artist-as-vessel-for-truth.

The artist as celebrity is a commodity – a factory which takes cash as an input and produces fame as an output. Journalists and producers fete him, and the public hangs on his every word. If he chooses, he can promote movies, video games or lines of clothing. The rewards of celebrity know no limits: access to the scions of culture, immortality in history, and of course a fortune.

But celebrity comes with a price. The public has a short attention span and constantly seeks new stimulants. An artist who wants to remain in the spotlight and defend his celebrity must constantly produce new and exotic entertainments. He can’t retread old ground. That’s last year’s material. If the populace doesn’t constantly receive new flavors of bread, they will abandon the circus.

The artist as vessel, on the other hand, is a hermit. He submerges himself in the language of human experience, but must retreat to privacy in order to fine-tune his art. He presents his creation to the world, heavy with meaning and style. Most artists strive in vain for their audience – The Great Gatsby didn’t reach its critical acclaim until after Fitzgerald’s death, and it was years until anyone thought anything of Dostoevsky. But that’s the price an artist pays for being a slave to both truth and beauty.

We have two competing drives here – the need for an audience (artist-as-celebrity) and the need to speak the truth (artist-as-vessel). Which wins?

To examine this further, your correspondent asks you to revisit Dead Poets Society. There’s a suitable calculus in the movie for determining the worth of a poem, even though Robin Williams calls it “excrement.” It’s a MySpace vid, sorry:

In case you won’t or can’t click on a MySpace link, here’s the relevant dialogue:

If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will – so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

A perfect metric. Put Merit (I prefer that to “importance”) on one axis and Technique (instead of “perfection”) on another. Rank each on a 1-to-7 Likert scale. Multiply the two together, double the result, and add 2. You now have a scale that goes from 4 (abysmal failure) to 100 (artistic perfection), with 34 being about average. The curve slopes oddly but it works.

A formula you can count on

A formula you can count on

As a rapper, Nas would naturally rap about the subjects most important to him – subjects with the most Merit – first. You can’t ration out your passion: if you’re compelled to get up on stage, it’s because you burn with something important to say. Therefore, Nas’s earliest raps would be on the closest subjects: friends who have gone to prison, surviving the dangers of the crack game, reminiscing over a peaceful time.

(This also makes sense from the viewpoint of homo economicus. Rational actors move first to achieve the wants that fulfill the most marginal utility.)

So Nas’s earliest raps will have the highest Merit available to him – a 7 on the 1-to-7 scale. Add to this Nas’s flow and rhyme, recognized by the critics listed above as the perfect Technique – another 7. 7 times 7 makes 49; 49 doubled is 98 and 98 plus 2 = 100. Therefore, Illmatic is the perfect rap album.

Fig 1: The absolute worth of Illmatic

Fig 1: The absolute worth of Illmatic

Now, having produced this pearl without price, Nas turns to his next project. While the struggles of the East Coast ghetto during and after the crack epidemic can’t be exhausted in 36 minutes of tape, it follows necessarily that Nas got the important stuff out of the way first. So his next tracks will be on subjects of slightly lesser Merit – a 6 out of 7, let’s say. Ceteris paribus, this means It Was Written scores an 86 on our scale. Still exceptional (remember, 34 is “average”), but not up to prior works.

Fig 2 - The absolute worth of It Was Written ..., graphed against Illmatic

Fig 2 - The absolute worth of It Was Written ..., graphed against Illmatic

And so it continues.

But don’t just take Mr. J Evans Pritchard, Ludwig von Mises and your correspondent at their word. We’ve got science on our side! Specifically, Satoshi Kanazawa’s oft-cited 2003 paper, “Why Productivity Fades with Age“. In this paper, Kanazawa documents the contributions of 280 scientists and shows that apparent “genius” declines as age increases. Similar effects have been observed in jazz musicians, authors and painters. Kanazawa attributes this to biological factors – declining testosterone following marriage – but we don’t need to be that reductionist.

Kanazawa’s findings dovetail with ours, though. Creativity does decline with age.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If an artist gifts us with a work of lasting genius – like The Great Gatsby, like Illmatic – we should consider ourselves lucky and not grow too hungry for more. Few artists who debut with that level of smashing success can reproduce it later. Maybe they’re unable to reconcile the burdens of aesthetics with celebrity. Maybe their brain has started to peak, per the dictates of evolution. Or maybe they’ve already said the most important things they have to say.

10 Comments on “Illmatic and the Crisis of Peaking Young”

  1. Jim #

    Surprise Math Attack!


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    “Kanazawa’s findings dovetail with ours, though. Creativity does decline with age.”

    Not necessarily! First, ability seems to vary by medium. In other words, Romantic poets tend to peak early (in their 20s and 30s), while novelists tend to peak later (40s, 50s, and 60s).

    Second, let me point out “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” by David Galenson. This guy is an economist who studied the peaks of various visual artists based on how much their paintings sell for. There were two curves. The “young geniuses” peaked early, having breakthrough ideas that revolutionized their fields. Then, for the most part (Picasso, I think is an exception), they use up that one genius idea and then keep rehashing that idea over and over until people get sick of them.

    The other curve refers to the “old masters” who aren’t recognized early in their lives but get progressively better and better. They peak late in their lives; often their best works are created just before their deaths. The example Galenson gives is Cezanne.

    It’s possible, if Galenson’s theory is true, that Nas is a “young genius.” He had his big idea, it was great, everyone loved it, etc. Now, if he wants to continue being great, he needs to move on to a different field and have another big idea. Maybe Nas wants to try his hand at country?


  3. John Bejarano #

    Is it possible that Nas is the exemplar of a “natural”?

    For some reason, this music-quality/poetry calculus reminds me of a way I often think about evaluating baseball pitchers. In this case, Technique becomes Mental Skill and Merit becomes Physical Ability.

    For most pitchers, Physical Ability starts out high. Their bodies are young and less fragile than they will be. They can throw harder and faster than they’ll probably ever be able to do when they become wily, old veterans. This is similar to how an artist, like Nas, may start out with the most to say right at the outset. His Merit will probably decline over time much as a pitcher will lose a couple MPH from their pitches as he ages.

    However, as a pitcher gets more experience, their Mental Skill improves. They learn new pitches. They learn how to use some pitches to set up other pitches. They learn how to strategize and make adjustments. They learn how to approach specific hitters. Their entire mental approach improves with experience. Similarly, many musicians and other artists find through experience new techniques to explore, new methods for materializing what they wish to express.

    It is this normal type of progression where Physical Ability declines as Mental Skill improves that I think characterizes most pitchers (and many artists with Merit and Technique).

    Once in a while, though, a natural comes along. For some reason, their Mental Skill comes intuitively instead of strictly through experience. They begin their careers as phenoms. And while, yes, they have to rely more on guile as they get older, they were able to realize the full potential of their Physical Ability (Merit) with a rare high Mental Skill (Technique) at a young age while the Physical Ability is still there.

    Maybe this is just describing the mechanics of the “Old Masters” (normal progression), and the “Young Geniuses” (naturals).

    Have I just equated Tim Lincecum with Nas? Jeez, this site does make one overthink.


  4. jeflee #

    “Or maybe they’ve already said the most important things they have to say.” I can roll with this.

    But also, Nas had his whole life to write Illmatic and who knows how much free time during his days. Every album that followed, he had merely a year or two years (he’s been damn consistent with album releases) and more than likely remarkably less free-time to write and think.

    Hip-hop doesn’t seem to be like other genres where the genius artists can disappear for a long time if they want. Why that is, is a whole ‘nother post, but I think it carries weight.

    That said, if you give him 5 years between Illmatic and his follow-up, collect the best tracks he made during that time period and made THAT his sophomore effort, his story would be a different one.

    One last thing to consider: Nas’s decline has a LOT to do with his beat selection. His ear for beats isn’t nearly as good as Jay-Z’s. (And this is why I don’t think Kanye should be so easily dismissed, as he’s much more important musically, both in his beats and the way he rhymes/sings over them then people are willing to give him credit for).

    Maybe with his success and heralding as the saviour of hip-hop he got too much power over his own albums for his own good, and he was no longer taking advice from Primo, Pete and all those guys behind the boards and in the studios who helped make Illmatic what it was.


  5. Perich #

    @Bejarano: “Have I just equated Tim Lincecum with Nas?”

    I was just talking Lincecum the other day. Given the effort that he and his father put into devising the “perfect pitching form” – an effort that involved medical cadavers, if the rumors I hear are correct – then I don’t know that “natural” is the word I would use to describe him.

    But I like the analogy and think it holds weight.


  6. Gab #

    I’d extend Jeflee’s argument about the need for rapid successions of high-quality music in order for an artist to keep from “disappearing” to every genre of music, not just hip-hop. Case in Point: Weird Al Yankovic has commented on how he *prefers* to do his albums a few years apart, and, as a result, every time he comes out with a new one, the general public reaction is always, “Oh! Yay! Al’s back!” to which he says, “Well, it isn’t like I *went* anywhere, folks…”

    I relate this to our inherent desire for instant gratification. We like it, we love it, we want some more of it- and we’re impatient for this craving to be satiated. This puts pressure on artists to pump out album after album in a short amount of time for fear of being forgotten. Any artist, Nas included, will, as Jefflee said, have less time to work on what they are producing after their initial break-through, and thus they will not be able to “put as much into” this effort as their first one. Ergo, the quality will not be as good once they start this trend. Of course, some outliers would, indeed, be those that it just comes 100% naturally to and could shat out gold in their sleep, and this also doesn’t cover artists whose success looks more like a bell curve (although if you simply ignore the upward slope, the graph of success for Nas versus, say, Vertical Horizon, would look similar- blah, that could all be its own topic), but I don’t think the latter has much to do with this particular post, about peaking YOUNG, i.e. being a hit from the beginning; and the former has been covered by the “natural genius” stuff from other commenters.

    What about scientists and mathematicians? You’ve got Newton and Nash, Einstein and Edison. I’m not a scientist, but I do concede there is tons of creativity involved in coming up with solutions to the physical and theoretical problems the advanced sciences and maths cover.


  7. John Bejarano #

    @Perich: “I don’t know that “natural” is the word I would use to describe him.”

    Heh! :) Ok, these days, I suppose natural is as natural does (whatever that means). Sorry, have to admit I’m a Lincecum fan as A) I’ve been a Giants fan since I knew what baseball was, and B) I happened to be in Denver to see his first major league win.

    You’re right, perhaps “natural” isn’t quite the just word here. Would you believe “phenom”? I seldom hear of old very accomplished veterans referred to as phenoms.


  8. luke #

    sorry dude, but using that scale is total shit. seriously. remind me to never let you grade a paper lol. i don’t think using a musician is a fair example though, especially an emcee – but it works perfectly for the argument that artists peak young and creativity declining in age. the thing is, nas was not only hungry, but living in extreme poverty when he wrote and recorded this album. for many rappers, their first album is their best because that’s when they are the hungriest. but the inherently limiting subject matter (self-limiting i should say) gets boring and becomes old, stale, and uninventive. the 50 cent problem is a great example. get rich or die trying is a modern classic, but no one wants to hear about 50 getting shot 9 times anymore, because it happened in the past – and since he built his image on being a gangster, he has nothing really open up about. lets face it, if he wanted to make a romantic concept album based around a love affair with a woman, he would get bashed. in that sense, the rap community limits its own genre by trying to be so damn thug. thankfully, the game has changed some, and we have people like kanye to thank for that.
    now, as far as pop music in general goes, i think the whole celebrity vehicle prevents almost any great music from being considered classic unless the artist is under 40 years old, ie it gets played on the radio and/or has a serious following. You can’t be the voice of the current generation and be an old ass dude, or at least according to contemporary pop culture you can’t. still, we have people like bob dylan who make fabulous records to this day, but they will never be as revered by the general public because he doesn’t hold the spotlight anymore.
    most other forms of art also present huge arguments against the idea that creativity falls with age. the film industry is probably the best example. Annie Hall, the Departed, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange – all directed by directors well past a “young” age. and don’t even get me started on actors lol.
    i think this is a perspective that is purely a product of popular culture, and trying to apply a scientific approach to art. When you look at other forms of art, you see that it comes from a variety of ages. many great artists continue to make great works throughout their life. good art is good regardless of how much it sells.


  9. lee OTI Staff #

    I remember hearing from somewhere another theory on peaking young that’s connected with the “hunger” theory: young people (men in particular) have their best output in their 20’s and 30’s since that time corresponds with the peak of their sexual power and the time they’re most concerned with impressing members of the opposite sex. Sounds plausible to me.


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