Released: April 19, 1994
Of the many excellent hip-hop albums born in the early nineties, Nas’ debut offering unsurprisingly still holds a special place in the hearts of many a hip-hop head. Illmatic is not a complete package; it is the complete package – the poster child for excellent hip-hop. ‘Complete’, however, is a woefully inadequate way of addressing an album that struck the perfect balance between the conscious hip-hop that was the staple of artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and the celebration of the glory and grit of the streets that was the specialty of the west coast at the time. Nas demonstrates with complex, intelligent lyrics precisely why for the longest period, he was considered the quintessential street poet. Factor in amazing jazzy production from the likes of DJ Premier, Q-Tip and Large Professor, and there can be no questioning the quality of the final product.
Illmatic features a quite a variety of sounds, all bound together by a dark theme, simultaneously threatening and melodic, that somehow pervades every track on this album. This dark undertone creates a sense of cohesion in the album –from the dark, urgency of ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ to the jazzy sway of ‘The World is Yours’ to the nostalgia of ‘Memory Lane’, Nas’ verses are tailor-fitted to the beats he flows over with such precision that it’s impossible to imagine one isolated from the other. The time period, the lyrics and the beats are all part of a single distinct whole and cannot be separated without losing the fundamental essence of the album. It isn’t the complexity of the beats that make them stand out – rather it is those slight adjustments that the producers make that turn a plain beat to a truly memorable one. Take ‘Halftime’ for example; the inclusion of the vocals keeps the track interesting and takes the pressure off the heavy drums, which work remarkably well during the verses themselves but less so during the hooks.
Lyrically, Nas brings his best game face to every single track all the while making it look frighteningly easy, appearing supremely confident in his abilities. He ability to reflect on his environment and his own actions gives the album a maturity that is all the more surprising given his own age at the time (he was just twenty). Interestingly, for such a lyrically powerful album, Nas does not rely too heavily on the range of his vocabulary or on complicated metaphors but instead relies on sharp, quick jabs and punchlines that ensures only an active listener will be able to keep up with him as he jumps from one point to another like a waffle in a lottery. This style allows him to maintain a relatively high energy level of tracks that would otherwise have dragged on ,tracks that make what can best be described as miserly use of hooks and choruses. Most impressive of all really, is the range of his lyrical ability – he’s incisively observant on ‘N. Y. State of Mind’, bold and boastful on ‘Halftime’ and puts his story-telling hat on in ‘One Love’. That he does all this with only one guest appearance (AZ) is probably the most unusual thing about this album – in a time when guest appearances dictated the commercial success of an album, the lack thereof indicated a defiance of mainstream expectations and implied a loyalty to the sound of the streets. Indeed, at its core, Illmatic is really a tribute to the streets of Nas’ homeland of Queensbridge and the grim realities that were a part of his everyday life. In fact, perhaps one of the reasons this album did so very well was because it had such a slice-of-life feel to – not my life obviously, nor yours probably, but a slice of Nas’ own, which lent the album both credibility and substance. Nas paints a picture of a bleak setting with gripping familiarity, not unlike a tour guide in a wartorn nation. Nas’ style in this album is highly confrontational, perhaps with the exception of the track ‘One Time 4 Your Mind’ which serves as a break of sorts. He is addressing head on the social condition of inner city youth, facing issues like urban poverty and violence directly. His rhymes have tremendous weight behind them – unlike several of his peers at the time, Nas does not give the impression that his rapping to hog the spotlight. Illmatic is very clearly not the product of a youth speaking just because he wants to be heard – rather it is the brainchild of lyricist who has given deep thought to what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. It is the thought, effort and talent behind the album that help it stand so far out.
It is exceedingly difficult to pick out just one or two tracks from this album, but gun to my head, I would say that ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ and ‘Represent’ are the best tracks on the album. It is hardly coincidence that both are produced by the already legendary DJ Premier. One can hardly argue when Nas declares in the first of the above masterpieces that “It’s only right that I was born to use mics”. If Illmatic was to have a lead single, ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ should undoubtedly have been it; in those five minutes Nas takes us deep into his life in the inner city, introducing us to crackheads and shootouts, all the while offering an outlook that alternates between cynical and hopeful. He goes on in some detail about the insidious presence of drugs, violence and greed, all while cautiously optimistic that there is a higher purpose to his life. ‘Represent’ is just full of quotable quotes – with lines with
“They call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella,
Moet drinking, marijuana smoking street dweller,
Who’s always on the corner, blowing up Cess,
When I dress, it’s never nothing less than Guess”
“If it wasn’t hanging out in front of cocaine spots,
We was at the candy factory breaking the locks”.
‘Represent’ is the pinnacle of Nas’ lyrical dexterity and precision – while ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ captures the theme of the album best (and thus makes for an amazing lead track), ‘Represent’ is simply the best song on this album.
For all the praise that is heaped on this album though, it has one interesting weakness as an album. It doesn’t have a summer jam on it, that club banger that makes you forget all about the hardship and struggle and just let loose on the dance floor. All most all the other ‘great’ hip-hop albums have one, if only to serve as a break from the monotony of the bleak grittiness, but Illmatic doesn’t. I personally don’t think a ‘summer jam’ was needed – that would break the album’s cohesion – but it is an interesting omission nonetheless.
It is painfully obvious why this album is considered Nas’ curse – every artist wants to redefine a genre, to leave a lasting impression on the world, and only the truly blessed ever succeed. Nas’ curse is that he succeeded – and then had to spend the rest of his career putting out excellent albums that were relegated, almost out of hand, to Illmatic’s shadow. One thing is clear though: Illmatic is the best 40 minutes of hip-hop ever recorded.
|Track Title||Producer||Length||My Rating|
|N.Y. State of Mind||DJ Premier||4:54||5|
|Life’s A Bitch||L.E.S. & Nas||3:30||4.63|
|The World is Yours||Pete Rock||4:50||4.75|
|Memory Lane||DJ Premier||4:08||4.75|
|One Time 4 Your Mind||Large Professor||3:18||4.88|
|It Ain’t Hard To Tell||Large Professor||3:22||5|
Overall Production Score: 9.67/10
Overall Lyrical Score: 9.78/10
Overall Enjoyment Score: 5/5
Overall Score: 9.78/10