Editorial by Phillip Waters
B.C. and A.D. are time designators used to separate history into two periods. The same idea can be applied to hip hop using B.I. and A.I. — Before Illmatic / After Illmatic. Seriously.
It’s no coincidence that on the 20th Anniversary of Illmatic’s release there is a documentary celebrating its brilliance titled “Time Is Illmatic.” Check out the trailer below…
If a world catastrophe was coming and a music capsule was made with only one album per genre allowed in it there’s no question which hip hop album goes in.There was nothing like it before and there’s been nothing like it since.
Illmatic is the quintessential hip hop album. It’s an addictive, innovative, once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece. Its crack cocaine, the airplane, and the Mona Lisa combined into 39 minutes and 51 seconds of audio bliss. It completely altered the landscape of rap music upon its release. It singlehandedly brought focus from the dominating G Funk / West Coast sounds of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg back to the East Coast. It sparked a renaissance of classic albums that include Ready to Die, The Infamous, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, The Score, and Reasonable Doubt. It held all the values and principles of hip hop since it’s beginnings in the 70s, while creating a brand new energy that still hasn’t been recaptured two decades later. It’s raw, original, vivid poetry covered in complex rhymes elevated the creative bar to levels that no one touched before and most likely will never touch again.
Rakim “let the mic smoke, slammed it when he was done, and made sure it was broke”. Kendrick Lamar “put fire to that ass, body cast on a stretcher”. But Nas “drank Moet with Medusa, gave her shotguns in hell, from the spliff that he lifted, and inhaled.” Nas was a special kind of special on his debut album, to say the least. Illmatic is the closest to perfection anyone has ever come in our art form and culture. Every song feels like a new album unto itself. To salute this fact, let’s review it track by track, acknowledging it’s significance and ability to stand the test of time like no other hip hop project.
- Production – The screeching of the subway trains. Audio clips of Wild Style. Nas’s debut verse from “Live at the Barbecue” playing in the background.The break beat that plays as Nas, his brother Jungle, and his partner in rhyme AZ sit at a table amongst weed, Hennessy, and a gun, philosophizing about life and music. Illmatic immediately pulls you into Nas’s surreal reality, in an everyday life sense, and doesn’t let you leave until the end of the album.
- Lyrics – Yo Nas, what the fuck is this bullshit on the radio – Nas, shit is mad real in the projects right now for a nigga. All them crab ass rappers be coming up to me, word to mother man, I think you need to let them niggas know it’s real man – True indeed, knowwhatimsaying, but when it’s real, you doing this even without a record contract – We tryna see many mansion and coupes – Niggas don’t listen man, representing, it’s Illmatic.
- Impact – In the 90’s, you couldn’t just jump into your album with one of your radio singles as the first track. An intro was mandatory. More specifically, an enticing, appetite wetting intro was mandatory. You’d be hard pressed to find an intro that tops Illmatic’s. Ready to Die, Life After Death, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Extention Level Event and even It Was Written offer similar cinematic openers, but none as authentic feeling as “The Genesis”.
2. NY State of Mind produced by DJ Premier (“I never sleep, cus sleep is the cousin of death”)
- Production – The threatening piano notes and repeated chant of Rakim saying “New York State of mind” make you realize you’re getting an unfiltered look into the underbelly of one of the world’s most famous cities.
- Lyrics – “Y’all know my steelo/ with or without the airplay/ I keep some E&J, sittin bent up in the stairway/ or either on the corner bettin Grants with Cee Lo champs/ laughing at baseheads tryna sell some broken amps/ G packs get off quick, forever niggas talk shit/ reminiscing about the last rime the task force flipped.”
- Impact – Plenty of rappers talk about their hometown. Plenty of rappers talk about New York. None did it in such an all encompassing, detail oriented way that Nas did. The way he raps on “NY State of Mind” you smell this piss in the hallways, you feel the splinters from the project bench, you see the crackheads. It’s no wonder everybody in the Big Apple (other rappers included) rallied behind this album as their official theme music.
3. Life’s A Bitch — Produced by LES (“Life’s a bitch, and then you die, that’s why we get high”)
- Production – Built around a sample of The Gap Band’s “Yearning for Your Love” and a soulful trumpet solo by Nas’s father, Olu Dara, the almost nihilistic “Life’s A Bitch” is one of Illmatic’s easy listening songs. Crazy, right?
- Lyrics – I switched my motto/ instead of saying fuck tomorrow/ that buck that bought a bottle/ could’ve struck the lotto/ once I stood on the block, loose cracks produced stacks/ I cooked up and cut small pieces to get my loot back.
- Impact – Most classic albums only have room for one guest feature, at most. Ready to Die had Method Man. The Blueprint had Eminem. Illmatic had AZ. That one perfect collaboration is more than enough. AZ and Nas effortlessly trade verses about visions of brighter days while recognizing the ugly world that they presently lived in, and created an all time slogan along the way.
4. The World Is Yours — Produced by Pete Rock (“I’m out for dead presidents to represent me”)
- Production – A dark beat that reeks of sorrow and melancholy is accentuated by Pete Rock’s turntable scratching.
- Lyrics – “I sip the Dom P/ watching Gandhi til Im charged/ then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin/ to hold the mic, I’m throbbing, mechanical movement/ understandable smooth shit/ that murderers move with/ the thief’s theme/ play me at night, they won’t act right.”
- Impact – Nas’s style of abstract, colorful imagery in his lyrics made him one of a kind during his time, and is the reason he’s constantly ranked as one of the greatest MCs ever.
5. Halftime –Produced by Large Professor (“Nas why did you do it, you know you got the mad fat fluid when you rhyme”)
- Production – An eclectic mix of what sounds like Christmas bells, jazz loops, and speedy drum patterns match Nas’s frantic rhymes on this one.
- Lyrics – You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/ that’s like Malcolm X catching the Jungle Fever/ king poetic, too much flavor, I’m major/ Atlanta ain’t Braver, I pull a number like a pager.
- Impact – On Illmatic’s first single, Nas didn’t make a club banger, radio jam, or song for the bitches. He just rapped his ass off over a dope beat, to impress Hip Hop purists.
- Production – The crooning and harmonizing of a what sounds like a choir over an almost peaceful instrumental give Nas the backdrop for his nostalgic tales.
- Lyrics – “They spoke of Fat Cat/ that nigga name made bells ring black/ some fiends scream about Supreme Team, a Jamaica Queens thing/ uptown was Alpo son, heard he was kingpin.”
- Impact – Nas took listeners behind the scenes, giving them an early profile on some of NY’s most notorious street legends. The guys that he names are the same people who would years later have documentaries and major motion pictures made about their lives. Nas introduced us first.
7. One Love — Produced by Q Tip (“Words of wisdom from Nas, try to rise up above”)
- Production – The light notes of a xylophone stand in perfect contrast with Nas’ hard knock stories.
- Lyrics – “So I come back home, nobody out but shorty doo wop/ rolling 2 phillies together, in the Bridge we call them oo-wops/ he said Nas, niggas caught me bussing off the roof/ so I wear a bulletproof, and pack a black trey deuce…shorty’s laugh was cold blooded, as he spoke so foul/only 12 tryna tell me that he like my style/ then I rose, wiping the blunts ash from my clothes/ and froze, only to blow that earth smoke through my nose.”
- Impact – All great MCs are great storytellers. But damn, I wonder if this is only a song, or if this was an actual letter that Nas sent to one of his comrades in jail. Not only was Cormega (what up with Cormega, did you see him, are yall together) not some fictional character in Nas’s imagination, he came home to infamy and his own recording career after his shoutout on Illmatic. And Nas’s third verse ( a convo with Shorty Doo Wop) was so realistic, Hype WIlliams turned it into a movie scene in his 1999 film, Belly, which Nas also starred in.
8. One Time 4 Your Mind — Produced by Large Professor (“I’m still writing rhymes, but besides that I’m chillin”)
- Production – The easy going track is stabbed by a jarring loop,bass notes, and a frantic drum pattern.
- Lyrics – I’m tryna get this money God/ you know the hard times kid/ shit, cold be starving, make you wanna do crimes kid/ but Ima lamp, cus a crime couldn’t beat a rhyme/ niggas catching 3 to 9s/ Muslim yelling free the mind.
- Impact – Nas’ earliest gift was his everyman appeal. His music, complex as it was, related to everyone from the intellectual Five Percenters to the drug dealing, school dropouts all in the same rhymes.
9. Represent — Produced by DJ Premier (“This goes out to everybody in New York, that’s living the real fucking life”)
- Production – A simple loop (that is hypnotizing) is flipped over and over again on top of classic boom bap. A simple hook of “represent, represent”. At the end of the song, Nas shouts out half of his friends from Queensbridge Projects. Hip Hop in its purest form.
- Lyrics – “Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game/ used to sport Bally and Gazelles with black frames/ now I’m into fat chains, sex, and tecs/ fly new chicks, new kicks, heinis and becks.”
- Impact – Whether Nas was speaking on the social ills of the inner city or spitting about material possessions, there is one constant throughout Illmatic. Top notch rhyming. That constant forced every rapper in the business, conscious and flossy ones, to step their game up.
10. It Aint Hard To Tell — Produced by Large Professor (“It aint hard to tell, I excel then prevail”)
- Production – Enchanting loops over a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” give the closing track the special feel it deserves.
- Lyrics – “MCs eavesdrop, though they need not to sneak/ my poetry’s deep, I never fail/ Nas’s raps should be locked in a cell/ It aint hard to tell.”
- Impact – The last six bars of Illmatic say it all. Every rapper to come after this album was influenced by it in one way or another. Nas changed Hip Hop forever. And he didn’t need embellished back stories, orchestrated beefs, or any gimmick whatsoever to do so. He simply put all his heart, soul, creativity, and talent into his debut album.
The result? Illmatic.