Stream: The Illz “To Know Your Place In The World”
Stream: O.C. “The O-Zone”
Stream: Sub-Conscious “Zeitgeist”
On “To Know Your Place In The Universe” New Jersey’s The Illz1 employs a breathy but measured delivery over a huge heaving track. His voice melds with the music but doesn’t suffocate under it. He projects firmly enough to let the listener know that his words must be taken seriously, but he never resorts to shouting or overenunciation. The song’s topic, The Illz’s artistic vision, could easily be construed as insular or hubristic, but deliberate care has been taken to rein in any elements that might befuddle or repel curious listeners.
His flow is unforced but doesn’t stray too far from the rhythm established by the drums. Though his lyrics describe his indefatigable commitment to his grand ambitions, they are also economical and logically ordered. The Illz’s sensitivity to these considerations does not compromise the originality or intensity of his performance. He sounds naturally free from constraint even as he labors to put forth a masterful effort on the mic.
In fact, The Illz shines brighter than many of his peers by daring to claim that his rapping is not only important to his own edification, but a vital contribution to the genre. Most other rappers are content to announce themselves as worthy competitors in the market, but fail to build a convincing case for themselves as artists. I hear so many songs nowadays that are merely variations on “Hi! I’m a solo rap artist and here’s a forty-eight bar half-hearted justification of my web presence.”
Many of these songs are insipidly casual and jarringly neurotic at once, conveying coolness (really, aloofness) through a disinterested delivery while an unfiltered account of mundane activities gives the illusion of hustle (more so, cloaked hysteria). The effect is more self-aggrandizing than inspiring. The Illz’ss epic come-up narrative, conversely, is persuasive and relateable because he knows which details don’t belong in the lyrics of a rising heroic rapper.
The Illz’s vocals are not perfectly delivered, but he doesn’t falter in any way that undermines his confidence. His breathiness and occasional letter “p” pops drive home the fact that his quest towards perfection and success is in fact the daily hustle of a corporeal being. At the same time, his exhalation reminds us that the soloist is prevailing against all odds, training and fighting against personal demons and obstacles that aren’t easily vanquished.
When he rhymes “I’m trying to soar way up into the heavens/ No time to rest when you’re trying to be a legend/ I’m standing by my guns like Charles Heston/ And maybe just this once, I’m feeling destined” we can feel and hear that his journey is a struggle without having to sit through any boring or dispiriting scenes. We also learn that his humility complements his work ethic but doesn’t put a ceiling on his plans: “Got big visions and big dreams/ On a life mission to get cream/ to go from the bottom of the pit to the big screen/ I never let another person intervene.”
Taken alone, such sentiments might play like shallow dreams of fame and wealth, but The Illz is most interested in the challenge of procuring a larger arena for his art. He is certainly interested in being compensated for his dedicated artistry, but not at the expense of his creativity. Energized by ambition, he is “surfing the clouds for something to write down” and prone to “motivate and redefine” where other artists recline; when he says “I want it all and nothing in between” he is alluding to material gain but also to the freedom to hone his craft and expand his art for increasingly larger audiences.
Such lofty ambitions demand an aggressive critique of the status quo, and The Illz rises to the occasion: “I don’t just shine, I came in the game to re-design it/ The rappers and myself we were never alike/ Up all night, feel the rush while I prepare for the fight.” His mission statement is reminiscent of O.C.’s unforgiving castigation of mediocrity “O-Zone”2 and Sub-Conscious’s labyrinthine plea to “open up the captions” on “Zeitgeist.”3 All three songs involve a stalwart soloist methodically laying figurative waste to hordes of uncreative rhymers by advocating an unwavering commitment to elevating their chosen art form above all other pursuits.
The Illz is admittedly a somewhat less developed artists than his predecessors. He doesn’t possess O.C.’s ability to pick the perfect word that nobody ever bothered to rhyme before. Though he avoids belaboring his points, he doesn’t display Sub-Conscious’s tireless ability to leap from topic to topic, either. In certain respects, his vocal performance is the least memorable of these offerings. But he does share his elders’ working-class ethos and contemplative tendencies, and his insistence that his “place in the universe” is in the role of a reformer is a reasonable summation of their assertions.
Plus, like any emcee, his style and skill set is partly shaped by his milieu. O.C. was responding to a parade of half-wits who thought that shouted choruses and rhyming “catch wreck” with “tec” would never sound stale, while Sub-Conscious was flustered by rapping that was flavorless and unenlightening despite pretensions to the contrary. The Illz arrives on the scene at a moment where rappers prattle on for too long about every little aspect of their lifestyles, so in response he speaks as a man of fewer and simpler words than the reformers of the past, but as I’ve argued, equivalent conviction and insight. — Thun
- Find out more about him and download his songs at his website. [↩]
- From O.C.’s 1994 debut album Word … Life. [↩]
- From Sub-Conscious’s 2000 vinyl single “Pushin’ Orbitz b/w “Zeitgeist” and “Visions In The Mind.” [↩]