Tuesday April 19, 1994. I was a junior in high school, barely two weeks into the seventeenth year of my life, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I left school at lunch to catch the city bus (the 18S, to be exact) to Southdale Mall. My mission was the “New Release” section at Sam Goody (remember when physical music stores existed, and you had to leave your house to purchase music?). Tuesdays had become my favorite day of the week, because that’s when all the new albums were released, and it seemed like every week there were at least two or three new albums coming out that I deemed worthy of a portion of my hard earned Taco Bell paycheck. But this Tuesday there was only one album on my mind: Nas’ debut album, Illmatic.
By 1994, Nas had already created quite a buzz for himself. First with his 1991 jaw dropping verse on Main Source’s “Live At The Barbeque” (where with blasphemous swag he boasted “when I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”) and later building on that momentum in ’92 with a solid performance on MC Serch’s (who played a key role in getting Nas signed to Columbia) “Back To The Grill”. The tail end of 1992 would see Nasir releasing “Halftime”, the lead single from the Zebrahead Soundtrack (shoutout to Michael Rapaport!). “Halftime” would make some noise and helped build the anticipation for Illmatic‘s arrival to earth.
When I picked up my Illmatic cassette at Sam Goody (Years later I would buy it on cd and vinyl) that historic day, I heard the angels sings. I remember going back to school with the cassette and when one of my guys saw that I had it he ask to see the insert and almost immediately a cipher of brothers formed, all in awe and memorized by the ill artwork which donned a pic of a young peasy headed snot nosed Nas hovering over a picture of his Queensbridge projects in the background. Even before listening to the album, the artwork had us blown away (yes, I’m sure the cover was inspired by the artwork from the Howard Hanger Trio’s 1974 album “A Child Is Born”, but it was still ill).
Illmatic would consist of a lean ten tracks, mostly produced by an elite crop of hip-hop producers: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip. The album would slowly earn Nas a gold plaque (and several years later a platinum), but more importantly it would go on to be a critical darling (yep, The Source gave it 5 mics) and is considered by most to be one of (if not the) greatest hip-hop albums every recorded. Hell, it’s even been the subject of classes at Harvard.
Illmatic is one of a handful of albums that I revisit at least a few times every year, and based on this introduction, you probably already know how I feel about it. I mean, my entire blog’ theme is based around it.
Sidenote: If you’re looking for an in-depth breakdown and analysis on Illmatic check-out Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai’s book “Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic”. Great read.
The Genesis – Instead of just titling this “Intro” or “Beginning”, Nasir cleverly titles it “Genesis”, cause that’s what brothers with depth do. It opens with a clip from the hip-hop cult classic movie Wild Style, and then the instrumental from Grandmaster Caz’ theme song from the movie’s soundtrack plays, while Nas, Jungle (Nas’ brother) and AZ discuss their goals and aspirations over it. Nas then seems to get frustrated by all of AZ and Jungle’s antics and shuts the opening track down saying “Niggas, don’t listen, man…representin’, its illmatic.”
N.Y. State Of Mind – Premo drops one of his vintage raw and dusty instrumentals for our host, who uses this song to warm shit up and let you know where his mind is at. I love how Nas begins this one, seemingly searching for the right rhymes, as he says “I don’t know how to start this shit” before going in with “rappers, I monkey flip ’em, with the funky rhythm I be kickin’, musician, inflicting composition”, and he never lets up from there: “It drops deep as it does in my breath, I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death, beyond the walls of intelligence life is defined, I think of crime, when I’m in a New York state of mind”…”the smooth criminal on beat breaks, never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes”. Need I say more?
Life’s A Bitch – L.E.S. hooks up a loop from the Gap Band’s classic record “Yearning For Your Love”, which is hard to go wrong with. Nas and the only other emcee to bless Illmatic with a verse, AZ, go toe to toe, spitting equally superb verses and ironically, bring life to the song’s bleak outlook on life. Nas’ dad, Olu Dara closes things out with some live trumpet chords as the song fades out. This one is short, sweet and perfect.
The World Is Yours – This was the second single released from Illmatic. Pete Rock lays down a beautifully dark instrumental built around a sick Ahmad Jamal piano loop and his signature heavy drums laid underneath it. With ease, Nasir comes in and completely obliterates Pete’s phenomenal production (seriously, this one is “T.R.O.Y.” level sick!) from his opening lines: “I sip the Don P, watchin’ Gandhi ’til I’m charged, writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin, to hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement, understandable smooth shit, that murders move with…the thief’s theme, play me at night, they won’t act right, the fein of hip-hop has got me stuck like a crack pipe”. When it comes to street-poetry, from beginning to end, this song IS the standard. Come on, man: “Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne, I’m deep I sound alone, caved inside, 1,000 miles from home, I meet a new nigga for this black cloud to follow, cause while it’s over me it’s too dark to see tomorrow”. Pound for pound, beat for beat, lyric for lyric, this is one of the three greatest hip-hop records of all time. Side note: The remix for this song (produced by Q-Tip) had a different second verse from Nas (and he changes his cipher completing footwear from Timbs to Nikes on the first verse) and that verse is equally as potent as the original verse.
Halftime – Like I mentioned in the opening, this song was originally released as the lead single off the Zebrahead Soundtrack, which came out in October of 1992, and was later tacked on to Illmatic. Extra P gets his first production credit of the evening, as he puts together a hard bass heavy instrumental that Nas bodies with what feels like minimal effort: “I use to hustle, now all I do is relax and strive, when I was young I was a fan of the Jackson Five, 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.” When I heard him say “puttin’ hits on 5-0, cause when its my time to go, I’ll wait for God with the 4-4” on the song’s final verse, I knew this dude was going to be great. Fittingly, this song marks the halftime for Illmatic if you’re listen to it on cassette.
Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park) – Premo slides Nas a dope mid-tempo backdrop that has a bit of soulful feel, thanks to a haunting vocal loop that serves as the ghost of times past, which is fitting since Nas spends most of the song walking down memory lane. Nas drops a lot of ill lines, but the most ill and visual one for me is:”I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for a sheep coat, Choco blessings make me see him drop in my weed smoke.” In my opinion, this is the most underappreciated song on Illmatic, which is a travesty because it’s ridiculously ill.
One Love – This was the third and final single released from Illmatic. Q-Tip (I’m so proud that somehow my favorite hip-hop group of all-time is connected to my favorite album of all time) builds this bluesy and bleak backdrop around a dope Heath Brothers’ loop that serves as the perfect canvas for Nas to read (or rap) letters he’s sent to a couple of his incarcerated homies: “What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid, when the cops came you should have slid to my crib, fuck it black, no time for lookin’ back, its done, plus congratulations you know you got a son, I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya? Told her she should visit that’s when she got hyper, flippin’ talkin’ bout he acts to rough, he didn’t listen he be riffin’ while I’m tellin’ him stuff, I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too, fuckin’ with them niggas from that fake crew that hate you”. The final verse finds Nas grappling with his own sanity, thanks to the drama of the streets (“you see the streets had me stressed something terrible, fuckin’ with them corners have a nigga up in Bellevue”), before he paints an ill visual with words about an encounter and conversation he had with a twelve-year-old Queensbridge thug that he calls Shorty Doo-wop (the detail he displays in their exchange is amazing…but I’ve already quoted more of this song than I planned on quoting, and I wouldn’t be doing the exchange any justice by only quoting a piece of it, so go listen to it again for your damn self!). This is a masterpiece and comes in a close second to “The World Is Yours” for the best song on Illmatic.
One Time 4 Your Mind – Large Professor lays down a drowsy funk backdrop that Nas rides through the hood like Deebo on Red’s beach cruiser. I’ve often heard people say this is Illmatic‘s filler song, but I disagree. It might be the weakest link in the chain, but if we’re talking about a Cuban link chain, are there really any weak links?
Represent – Premo gets his third and final production credit on Illmatic, and in my opinion, this is the strongest of his three. He takes an obscure xylophone loop and it becomes the backbone to this cold and sinister backdrop that our host uses to “represent” (a term that was used way too often by rappers in the nineties) his hood and discuss the every day happenings there: “any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast niggas tumble, the corners is the hot spot full of mad criminals, who don’t care, guzzlin’ beer, we all stare.” Yet another great record.
It Ain’t Hard To Tell – The final song of the evening was also, ironically, the lead single from Illmatic. Extra P grabs a couple of loops from MJ’s classic “Human Nature” record and builds a slick instrumental around it. Speaking of around it, Nas (“the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazin'”) raps circles around this beat, or as he boasts on the song’s final verse: “I dominate break loops giving mics menstrual cycles”. To have a classic song like this so deep in the album’s sequencing speaks volumes to how great a record Illmatic is.
Nas sets the new standard for lyrical dexterity on Illmatic. Every song on the album is brimming with content, as Nas doesn’t waste one song, verse, bar or word on nonsense or fluff. And when you add the magnificent production from the top of the crop producers that sonically back his hood poetry, what you get ladies in gentleman, is perfection. From the album title, to the artwork, to the rhymes and music, Illmatic is a flawless masterpiece, and the greatest hip-hop album ever recorded.