Producer: DJ Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., MC Serch, Pete Rock, Q-Tip
One of my lifelong pastimes has been the sport of bitch-slapping ignoramuses who attempt to reduce the art form of hip hop down to, “It’s just a bunch of fast talking over a beat.” A long time ago, I transitioned from being angered or offended at people’s ignorance and laziness to shaking my head in shame. Like its older brother, rock ‘n roll, hip hop has become one of the richest and most interesting genres of music invented by the African-American community, spreading from local urban American ciphers and freestyle sessions to becoming one of the most dominant forms of entertainment in the world. It has managed to utilize the power of human vocals to generate force through percussive means, rather than solely melodic ones, and in perhaps no other genre of music has the force of lyrics become such a focused and important one. Hip hop is, in essence, the definitive modern form of poetry from the late 20th century into the early 21st. In no other album is this clearer than in perhaps what is the greatest hip hop album of all time, Nasir Jones’ Illmatic.
Nas has long been considered one of the defining kings of hip hop, one of the all-time greats. His work is consistently ranked with many of the more mainstream masters of the genre, such as The Notorious B.I.G., 2pac, Dr. Dre, Run-DMC, and Eminem. Considered by many as a “thinking man’s rapper,” Nas has lived the majority of his career out of the commercial spotlight, spending most of his time in critical, rather than mass, acclaim, aside from a brief feud with rival Jay-Z in the early 2000’s. Nas has rarely been a man to stoop down to shallow pop hooks, sellout collaborations with pop divas, nor has ever been one to write songs that fail to tell interesting stories. In Illmatic more than in any of his other records, Nas showcased his ability to utilize outstanding lyricism, musical flow, and expert production to tell human stories of artistic expression. Though his language may appear foreign or even alien to those outside the concrete jungle or the urban projects, if you take the time to understand Illmatic, you will be able to appreciate what a masterful personal narrative it is.
As far as basics go, Nas had the production values down to a science to produce effective, memorable, and catchy beats to compliment and support his lyrical stories. The sampling and dialogue used in the opening “Genesis” sets the scene perfectly. Even though there is no actual rapping going on, the urban train tracks, the drug-dealing dialogue, and even some brief philosophical discussion introduces us to a world of harsh realities and harsh, unforgiving consequences — a dog-eat-dog world, Nas’ world. The setting is New York city, or more specifically, Nas’ home projects of Queensbridge, Queens, New York. “N.Y. State of Mind” baptizes the listener by gun fire and describes the harsh life of urban survival. The foreboding piano riff exudes tones of melancholy and danger. This second track is also our first introduction to Nas’ expert lyricism, which he uses to describe intense ghetto shootouts, turf wars, and describes life as “parallel to hell/but I must maintain.”
Things take a turn for the softer and more reflective in “Life’s a Bitch,” which is opened by Nas asking his close friend and collaborator, AZ, to reflect on what the real purpose and meaning of life is after “clothes, bankrolls, and hoes,” and questions the materialistic obsession of both his and his peer’s lifestyles. AZ then fires into a scathing condemnation of life’s hardships, and concludes that they must enjoy and appreciate what life they have, because as he and Nas know all too well, life can often be “a bitch, and then you die.” Nas’ verse is even more poignant, though it carries a resilient sense of optimism and hope despite all the darkness. Nas decides that instead of wasting all his time and energy into temporary respites and feeling sorry for himself, he can put that energy and effort to good use and plan for the future and, possibly, make a better life for himself: “I switched my motto; instead of saying, ‘fuck tomorrow’/ that buck that bought the bottle could’ve struck the lotto.” The song concludes with a beautiful jazz cornet solo played by Nas’ father, ushering the final tones of what ‘Illmatic’s emotional content reflects.
The rest of the album is of similar, if not greater, richness and value, with Nas continuing to lament his life’s frustrations, his own shortcomings, and his wavering emotional health. Illmatic is relatively unique compared to most hip hop albums in that that the artist acknowledges his own vulnerability. In a genre that can be mostly summarized by aggressive alpha-male boasting and shallow displays of tough guises, Nas’s willingness to expose his doubts and contemplate them showcases a maturity that is rare to mainstream rap. Nas not only discusses the flaws in is ghetto upbringing in his music, he examines the flaws of his own character and dares to explore beyond the cultural facades of stereotypical male behavior. As he points out early on in the album, surely there must be more to life beyond money, material wealth, and polygyny, as well as the cultural mandated male behaviors that often lead to them, e.i. aggression, violence, and a refusal to ever display any signs of weakness.
However, the man retains a sense of hope that always strives to find that silver lining amongst all the black clouds. Although Nas openly admits that he “need(s) a new nigga for this black cloud to follow/because while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow,” he still relishes in the fact that the world is his for the taking if he so reaches out to grab it with determination. Occasionally, Nas partitions time to fire back at his demons, channeling much of that characteristic/stereotypical rapper-gangster bravado that most of the masses associate with hip hop, albeit in a way that is effective, powerful, and most importantly of all, nuanced. In “Halftime,” Nas hits his best flow in the entire album, firing off similes, metaphors, and lyrical narratives like a machine gun. He even goes so far as to boast, “When I attack, there ain’t an army that can strike back.”
Another critical element of Illmatic that has made it such a defining album in hip hop history is how it is constructed in way that the entire genre could, in theory, be recreated from its ingredients alone. While Nas is one of the famous East Coast MC’s of the ’90’s, and sports the rapid-fire, complex rhymes typical of EC rap from that time period (similar to Biggie, Big Pun, etc.), his first record exemplified the slow, deliberate beats and rapping of a West Coast G-funk track with “One Time 4 Your Mind.” The incredible range of samplings and beats also illustrate the deep history of hip hop’s supporting background, ranging from electronic synthesized elements to acoustic instrumentals to sampled vocals. Every element of hip hop’s body of work can either be traced back to or summarized in Illmatic, and in this way, the album is a sublime summary of the entire genre.
What more praise can be sung of Nas’ historic debut? Indeed, the record remained a quintessential project of hip hop ever since its release, and its reputation has only grown stronger with time. Most music fans will need several listenings to even begin to appreciate it, but once you appreciate the subtle inner workings of the tracks, you can appreciate the sublime nature of Nas’ personal story. The most important attribute of Illmatic is that tells a deeply human narrative, and its recognition of life’s many hardships is a concept that we can all relate to. In Illmatic, Nas manages to build himself up to ethereal heights, yet he also grounds himself firmly with the everyman with every verse. Altogether, Nas’ masterful lyricism, impeccable beats, and blazing passion make this record one for the ages — not just one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, but one of the best musical albums ever released. All in all, it is some very fine fast talking over some beats.
—> Illmatic receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
Standout Tracks: Every track’s a killer, but the most exceptional ones are “Life’s a Bitch,” “The World is Yours,” and “Halftime.”
? This is about as far from “A Milli” as you can get, my friends. Cheers.
Great review. Another thing I love about this album is that Nas wrote it when he was like 19. Sort of fits the “conceptualist” archetype of David Galenson’s conceptualist/experimentalist model of creativity. See, e.g., here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Galenson or here: http://weirdblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/creative-conceptualist-or-experimentalist/
Interesting. Was he one of your professors at U of C? I feel like most musicians of the 20th/early 21st century would fit into the “conceptualist” archetype. Artists like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, 2pac, and Nas all created their best works when they were young (and pissed off).
Yeah, he was one of my professors. His background is in economic history but several years ago he completely changed course and he now almost exclusively studies artistic creativity. Interesting guy.