Last night I was watching Pulp Fiction. Somehow it always seems to come on at night and it's led to me sharing some cool thoughts before. I got into a brief conversation on Twitter about it and right away, we mentioned how Jackie Brown was criminally underrated.
15 years after its release, it's still a great movie. A great movie about my city and a reminder that Pam Grier is a treasure of beauty/sass. But it's slept on by a lot of folks because the monster came before it. How do you follow up one of the most influential movies of the last 20 years? A movie that was getting high praise the minute it got released.
(Even as a kid, I felt its influence. I remember a video that my summer camp counselors in 1994 shot with random footage of us around the campus and a nearby ice skating rink. The music playing over it? "Jungle Boogie" and "Misirlou". I didn't know why that music was chosen but it hit me a few years ago - that's the music playing in intro of Pulp Fiction.)
Anyway, it had me thinking of somebody else who's an all-time great but sparks a lot of controversy over his music catalog. Nas. No matter what he's done over the last two decades, he's haunted by the brilliance of his debut "Illmatic.
So during that conversation, this came to mind.
Just thought of a comparison. Pulp Fiction - Illmatic, Jackie Brown - It Was Written.
— Evan Barnes (@evan_b) October 19, 2012
Comparing both of their crowning achievements to the underrated gems that came after it. Here we go.
"Pulp Fiction" and "Illmatic" set a new standard the minute they were released. They were written masterpieces. Nas' combination of incredible lyricism, storytelling, and wordplay made him the 2nd coming of Rakim. Pulp Fiction's witty dialogue and non-linear storyline brought it instant acclaim. Both pieces of art forced everyone else to step their game, influenced a generation of peers and followers and set a new standard for writing/MCing.
Illmatic had a superstar cast of producers. Q-Tip, Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and LES made this one of the first albums to have the hottest producers team up to create a sound that defined 90's New York hip hop. It also had only one guest verse - AZ, who sparked his own career with his killer verse on "Life's a B***h".
Pulp Fiction's cast? It revitalized John Travolta and made Samuel L. Jackson a Hollywood star after Spike Lee set him up. Uma Thurman became a star after it and Bruce Willis gave one of his best performances. Throw in a brilliant appearance from Harvey Keitel and a Christopher Walken cameo and it was a perfect storm just like Illmatic.
Pulp Fiction became a pop culture phenomenon, Illmatic brought New York hip hop back into the forefront despite being overshadowed 5 months later by another debut from a NY lyrical genius. Both are still quoted/sampled today. They also cast a long shadow on their followups. Jackie Brown (1997) and It Was Written (1996).
It Was Written saw Nas reach for bigger producers (The Trackmasters) and a bigger audience. Jackie Brown went more low key despite adding Robert DeNiro, bringing back Pam Grier and using Sam Jackson as his lead male. IWW was a bigger success for Nas (#1 on the charts, a Top 40 hit and 3 million sold) while Jackie Brown made $70 million less. Both received backlash.
To me, It Was Written is underrated because Nas' storytelling is absolutely stellar. "Take It In Blood", "I Gave You Power" and "Black Girl Lost" are gems and "If I Ruled The World" still holds up well today. It's a great pop/street record that influenced - for better and worse - where Nas would head the next 5 years but also MC's like Lupe Fiasco.
And I'll defend to anybody who hated that era of Nas or The Trackmaster's simplistic production (like I do) that this might be one of the best remixes of that time.
Jackie Brown was a blaxploitation homage and it showed that Tarantino could tell a straightforward, character-driven movie that grabbed your attention without being over the top. He could still deliver a great twist and made great use of Pam Grier, Sam Jackson and Robert DeNiro. Robert Forster as Jackie Brown's confidant Max Cherry earned an Oscar nomination for his role.
To this day, I'm still bummed Grier didn't get an Oscar nomination. Also, Tarantino used more of L.A. as his background. He used the scenery to show that he was a true Angeleno, not just somebody filming here (something I explained here). Plus the soundtrack has a lot more soul than Pulp Fiction.
Both It Was Written and Jackie Brown might be disappointments because of what they aren't. For me, they're great because of what they are. Great works that showed the authors growing. They may not be as filling as what came before it but step out of that shadow and you'll see underrated gems that have great replay value.
(Sidenote - You could do this for a lot of albums. Prince's "Around the World" and Michael Jackson's "Bad" come to mind. I just chose Nas because of the mid-90's time frame)