If you're old enough, you can recollect that in the '90s, baby-boomers wouldn't stop boasting how old-time rock 'n' roll was best. "Bob Dylan, the Doors, Woodstock, that was when rock was rock," they'd tell you. The old-timers would keep their radios locked on classic-rock stations playing the same hundred songs in constant rotation and save their money for anytime the Moody Blues or Donovan would come to town.
Subversive Gen X'ers would snicker about their parents' refusal to accept the greatness of the present. But those '90s kids should have been careful. Now the fetishizing has begun all over again with '90s hip-hop. Any head over 35 with Sirius in the car is constantly checking Backspin, they're booking voyage on the I Love the '90s Ship-Hop Cruise, they ponder what if Tupac and Biggie had lived a little longer, and they make sure to get a babysitter whenever old-school favorites come to town the way Lauryn Hill and Nas will September 22.
Hill made her name as one-third of the Fugees, scoring a number one hit with a cover of "Killing Me Softly." Then she broke out for a solo career with 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and found a fan base that has stayed with her for the past 20 years. Ms. Hill hasn't put out another studio album since, and her live shows gained a reputation for tardiness and erratic behavior. But the love for her solitary solo album is so strong (recently NPR named it the number two album ever recorded by a woman) that people kept coming. And lately they have been rewarded with punctual, powerful performances.
Nas, meanwhile, was the son of a jazz musician and sampled jazz beats over rhymes to unique effect. Right from his debut 1994 album, Illmatic, many called him the greatest lyricist and MC in the game. Number one records such as It Was Written, I Am... and most recently 2012's Life Is Good only bolstered that claim.
Any listener of Hill and Nas can quickly detect the greatness of their output even if you don't have memories from when those works were released. But was the decade from which their careers spawned really the golden age of hip-hop as it's being marketed?
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There are definite parallels between rock in the '60s and hip-hop in the '90s. There was room for experimentation and the possibility of creating something new and unprecedented. While Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj have 30 years of hip-hop to compete against, young Nas and Lauryn Hill were only a few years from the birth of rap, giving their sounds a freshness that modern rappers can't access. Just like '60s rockers, rappers in the '90s studied the pioneers while recording on technologies their poorer forefathers couldn't access.
Young'uns can argue nostalgia makes everything better, and though the '90s had great hip-hop, there was also plenty of garbage. They'll say acts like Future and Migos are as good as anything hip-hop-related from the '90s, just as their parents would say Pavement and Radiohead stood up to the rock of the '60s.
But beware, millennials, in 20 years it will be you saying, "They don't make EDM like they used to."