Illmatic by Nas

9 September 2019

Nas’ 1994 debut album Illmatic is an undeniable classic. The hip-hop equivalent of Abbey Road (1969) or Off the Wall (1979), it is a true work of art. Music magazine Pitchfork gave it a 10/10, naming it a “hip-hop landmark” (Weiss), and music critic Paul Cantor said: “It was difficult to listen to the album for the first time and not be blown away” (Cantor). Nas’ debut album Illmatic reflects life in the streets of Queens, New York and offers sonically pleasing beats complimented by Nas’ smart lyrics.

“I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat” (Jones – “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)”). Throughout this album, Nas recalls many stories from his life growing up in Queens, New York. Many of the stories recollected in this album are dark, with negative messages about drugs and crime. That doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t be listened to, accepted and analyzed.

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On the sixth track, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”, Nas raps: “It’s real, grew up in trife life, did times or white lines/The high pipes, murderous nighttimes/And knife fights and blight crimes” (Jones – “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)”). He describes his entire teenage years in three lines. He paints the picture of living in an area filled with crime, drugs and poverty, in the largest housing projects in the US (the Queensbridge projects) (Barry). These memories are painted in such a way that this album resembles a movie with no actual visuals. On track 3, “Life’s a B****”, Nas reminisces a time before the fame and fortune, when he would sell crack cocaine on street corners, rapping: “Once I stood on the block, loose cracks produce stacks/I cooked up and cut small pieces to get my loot back” (Jones – “Life’s a B****”). Nas treats his debut album Illmatic like a “memoir” from the projects.

Although the importance of Illmatic is in its stories, its enjoyable sonics are not to be ignored. After you are introduced to the overall vibe of the album through the intro, “Genesis”, you are led to arguably one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time: “N.Y State of Mind” . From the addictive beat, produced by renowned hip-hop producer DJ Premier, to Nas’ intelligent punchlines and metaphors, this track is truly a work of art. Opening up with: “Rappers, I monkey flip ’em, with the funky rhythm I be kickin’” (Jones – “NY State of Mind”), a tongue-twisting intelligent line aimed at Nas’ competition, this song is a perfect balance of a great instrumental with mind-blowing rhymes. Another outstanding song on the album is the fifth track, “Halftime”. With stellar production from Large Professor, references to Malcolm X, and comparing himself to“a convict who kills for phone time” (Jones – “Halftime”), this track has it all.

Illmatic serves as a peek into the daily life of a young African-American man living in extreme poverty before his rise to fame. Its importance in hip-hop and its status as a classic body of work is unquestionable. It transcends an album. It is a reflection of a culture.

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