Illmatic is very easy to listen to: accessible due to its lengthand composition, neither over- nor under-produced. For the casual listenerunacquainted with the history of hip-hop, the album's easy lyrical flowand attractive backbeats are part of what makes the record commerciallysuccessful. However, for the more ethnographically inclined listener, thealbum represents a watershed moment in hip-hop history and development.Illmatic came at a time when East Coast rap was searching for amessiah; a face to rally around and meet the West Coast rap scene'ssuccess via Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
Nas: Illmatic Nas’ debut album was released twenty years ago now, and to celebrate, a remastered version of it entitled Illmatic XX has recently been released. Despite the fact that Nas was just 20 at the time of release, this album is widely seen as his masterpiece and used as a benchmark to which other hip hop and rap album of the ‘90s. Includes: - 24k Audiophile Gold Disc CD with re-mastered audio, housed in a 'Cherrywood Trophy Box' with gold plaque. Black 2-piece outer box with original 'Nas' promotional sticker exclusive to Get on Down.com Orders.
Not only for this reason, Illmatic begs to be dissected andanalyzed, as it is a true masterpiece – socially, musically, andnarratively. Transcending one artistic medium, the album spills outsideits ten tracks to poeticize and novelize the portrait of a young manliving amid poverty and violence, forcing the adept listener to cope with,and understand, the varied levels of the meta-narrative. The album isn'timportant simply by virtue of being a vital step in the development of agenre; taken out of the hip-hop frame, it retains immense artisticweight.
Identifying the album's influences is an important step in breaking downwhat makes it such a milestone. Musically, one of the most evocativecharacteristics of Illmatic is the similarity of much of Nas'phrasing to jazz solos. Nas isn't rapping on top of the music, but withinit – his cadences share more with Gillespie, Parker, and Davis than hisrap contemporaries. Sitting just behind the beat, anticipatory of the nextdrop, and deliberate in his use of space, Nas even gives a shoutout to thejazz pedigree of his craft halfway through the album:
Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bopI drop the ancient manifested hip-hop straight off the blockThe reference to bop shouldn't be surprising given his father's (trumpeterOla Daru) background as a blues and jazz musician, but the phrasingsimilarity between Nas' flow and those used in jazz should still be upheldas a triumph of the album's lyricism due to his age and the comparativelevel of his hip-hop peers. Illmatic is a musicalmasterpiece, not just because of the samples, production, and content ofthe lyrics; Nas understands rap is a musical instrument, not just alyrical vessel. Also interesting to note about this particular coupletabove is his reference to the overarching rap and street narrative (the'ancient manifested hip-hop'). In 1994, Nas was ready to emerge from theamalgam of underground East-Coast-rap greats such as Kool G Rap and KurtisBlow he had drawn influence from, as well as act as the voice of streetsages who had no greater reach than the Queensbridge projects.
Throughout the ten tracks on the album, that voice cuts and weaves througha variety of backbeats and accompaniments. A few in particular stand outas the best examples of Nas' powerful storytelling and lyricism.
'Halftime,' Nas' solo debut single and Illmatic's fifth track, wasoriginally recorded for the soundtrack of the 1992 race relations filmZebrahead. The motives for including 'Halftime' on Illmaticwere most likely both artistic and commercial; the track was simply toogood, and too popular at the time to leave off the album. As 'Halftime'was released two years before Illmatic, it acted as the long fusefor the album's explosion: the track's release spawned the Columbia recorddeal, as well as the hype that secured some of New York's finest beatmakers for the 1994 debut. LargeProfessor (Main Source), who would originally invite Nas to guest on'Live at the Barbeque,' acted as producer to create an up-tempo stage tothe biographically braggadocio verses. Sonically and lyrically, the songis a coming-out-party, full of trumpets and background voices that createthe atmosphere of a freestyle circle, with Nas stating, 'I got it hemmed,now you never get the mic back.' This is a head-on attack with Nas at hisNastiest, spitting the venom of his intellectualgenesis story:
Back in '83 I was an MC sparkin'But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks andKick my little raps cause I thought niggas wouldn't understandAnd now in every jam I'm the fuckin' man'Halftime' could easily kick off the album with its in-your-faceintroductory jabs and uppercuts. Instead, it serves as an upshift into thehigher gear of the middle of the album, building on the strength of theearly offerings.
The heart of the album is the sixth track, 'Memory Lane (Sittin' in daPark),' a retrospective of the rapper's young life in the projects.Bordering on breathless, Nas' delivery is slightly out of keeping with hismore melodically cadenced and measured verses elsewhere on the album, butit only serves to add earnestness to the messages and reflections thatcarry the cut. Floating smoothly over the Hammond organ backing-track of asample of Reuben Wilson's 'We're in Love,' he serves up verses that wonderabout the real reason his contemporaries are entering the rap game, aswell as reflecting on whether he'll be a victim or perpetrator of theviolence he sees everyday:
I rap divine, God, check the prognosis: is it real or showbiz?My window faces shootouts, drug overdosesLive amongst no roses, only the drama, for realA nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganjaThe track also showcases some of Nas' best internal rhyming and assonanceon the album, which together forms his signature style and underlines howadvanced his lyricism is.
'It Ain't Hard to Tell,' another Large Professor production, was thesecond single on Illmatic and closes the album. It's a grittyoffering, with a ghostly vocal backing track sampled from MichaelJackson's 'Human Nature' and long bass notes that underline the sax andsynth hook. The whole production feels pushed through a lo-fi filter, asif an old phonograph is playing in a darkened corner of a New York subwaystation while Nas spits over top. Sharing some of the ego-centric contentof 'Halftime,' 'It Ain't Hard to Tell' feels like a statement of purposefor the future, reminding listeners of the ultimate power of Nas' rapswhile laying down some of the finest lyrical passages from the album.Mythological imagery on this track serves to elevate (or drop, in thefollowing example) Nas to his place in the pantheon of rap:
Nas Illmatic Gold Cd
I drink Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns in hellFrom the spliff that I lift and inhale, it ain't hard to tellIn another, he contrasts his own immoral fables with those of Aesop:
The buddha monk's in your trunk, turn the bass upNot stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot upFinally, on the last verse, Nas drops one of the best lines on the album,equating the depths of the biblical Leviathan's ocean with the complexityof his own language — forcing him to reimagine (or dull down on a secondattempt) his storytelling to the listener:
This rhythmatic explosion is what your frame of mind has chosenI'll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozenSpeak with criminal slang, begin like a violinEnd like Leviathan, it's deep, well let me try againThis mythology trope represents some of Nas' most advanced lyrical deviceson Illmatic, moving him into his role as a rap intellectual. Beyond the substantive musical composition and production, the album hasan ability to encapsulate a time and place, and not just the one Naschooses to portray.I was fifteen when I first heard Illmatic. My parents weresplitting up, and that particular summer was hot and still. One night inJuly, as I hopped into the passenger seat of a run-down minivan while acocktail of drugs brewed holes through my brain, I thought, fuckit. I don't know how I made it home, or what I did, or what I told mybroken mother the next morning. What I do remember is a painting formedfrom a speedometer's neon streaks and the incandescent trails ofheadlights that passed on the highway. Underneath the surface of thatnight, borne on the back of a bass drum from a blown-out speaker system,there was a steady pulse that would come to obsess and haunt me. Call itthe pinnacle of lyricism, or east coast hip-hop's emergence from theshadow of west coast gangsta rap; call it the thief's theme, or, simply,rap's greatest work. For me, it was the soundtrack of being chased fromchildhood and the denouement of my shattered family, played out againstthe stark soundscape of New York City's Queensbridge projects.
That soundscape is what carries and breathes through this masterpiece.There aren't fast cars, big houses, or frills. You can smell the streets,see the clouds that hang over Queens, and feel the pain in Nas' voice whenhe talks about those lost to the violence. Yet, despite the horrors anddarkness it contains, the most important part of Illmatic is itssoft underbelly: one of lament and reflection, memory and timelessness.The album is about crime, loss, and numbness – but it also looks forwardto a possible future and to escaping the cycle.
Nas created this classic as all great artists do: by acting as a purveyorof the universality of the human condition through his own experience.Every time I hear the rumblings of the F train as it kicks off the firsttrack on Illmatic, I'm back in that summer night, with the run-downminivan and the blown out speaker system. Only this time, there's no pain,and no fog, and no broken mother waiting at home. There's just Nasrapping, coming outta Queensbridge.
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With expectations high for Nas' 10th studio set, Life Is Good, now's a fine time to take a look back at where the New York rapper's career began.
Illmatic's cover features the artist aged seven. This is when he 'started seeing the future,' as Nas told MTV in 1994, as the mainstream media slowly began its affair with a debut album that, today, is regarded a classic.
At the time of Illmatic's release, Nas was just 20 years old. But to listen to these detailed rhymes, one might think they were the work of a man with considerably more life experience.
Never does Nas hold back lyrically - these tracks are deconstructions of the surrounding environment, assessments of his situation and maps towards the way out. A Queensbridge native, Nas grew up in a densely populated housing project - all around him, stories were playing out 24/7.
With no shortage of inspiration, his creative juices flowed with an effortlessness as sweet as the end-result rhymes. The same Long Island City blocks had produced Roxanne Shante and Marley Marl - the words 'fertile breeding ground' come to mind. But Nas would ultimately outshine these pioneering talents.
Riding expert production from DJ Premier, Large Professor and others, heavy beats set atop jazz- and funk-sampling melodies that expedited accessibility, Nas' wordplay entertains as effectively as it educates. Frequently he refers to younger years - both One Time 4 Your Mind and Halftime recall experiences as a 10-year-old.
Memory Lane is nostalgic yet cemented in the (then) present, and also throws ahead to an unseen future. 'My duration's infinite,' he claims, simultaneously implying lineage with the rap game's greats: 'I drop the ancient manifested hip hop.' It's a boast of timelessness that would ring true.
Yet Illmatic failed to immediately engage with the commercial rap market. Critical success came easier: several publications labelled it a vital release. And time's done right by Illmatic, as nowadays tracks like N.Y. State of Mind and The World Is Yours are as synonymous with the early- to mid-90s east coast scene as anything by The Notorious B.I.G. or Wu-Tang Clan. The latter cut would be even sampled by Jay-Z on his 1996 debut LP, Reasonable Doubt.
Life Is Good… but it couldn't have gone that way without Illmatic.