April 19th 1994. Thirty nines minutes, fifty-one seconds and ten tracks that changed Hip Hop forever. As Nas famously mumbled at the beginning of N.Y State of Mind, I don’t know how to start this, really.
In my very biased old school opinion, never has there been a Hip Hop album before, or after that has had classic after classic after classic featured on one LP alone. People have to remember that in Hip Hop, 1994 was an absolutely massive year. Biggie Smalls own debut Ready To Die, Outkast’s Southernplaylisticcadillacmuzik, Common’s Resurrection, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s The Main Ingredient and Gangstarr’s Hard to Earn are just a few albums that need to be mentioned released alongside young Nasir’s inauguration, and I believe he blows each and every one of them out of the ball park.
I’ll get started on Nas’s raw talent and rhyming technique a little later, but for now I want to focus purely on the production of the LP, and create the argument that there hasn’t been this smooth array of DJ’s and producers on one record since Illmatic. DJ Premier, Q Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor and L.E.S, that’s just a sentence in itself. Absolute pioneers of Hip Hop, they could of produced the beats and let Nas sing over them for all they cared, it’s Hip Hop in it’s most pure and artful form, beats I will never stop bouncing my head to.
Tell me an album within the last twenty years with that kind of production? I didn’t think so, and I’m only talking about the beats, I haven’t even begun with Nas himself yet! Illmatic was given the five star mic rating from The Source upon its release, an absolutely unheard of thing for a debut artist to receive from the influential Hip Hop magazine. Everything you need to know about Hip Hop is and comes from within the ten tracks on this piece.
It saddens me to write that over the years the meaning and symbols of this genre have all but disappeared; these days a ‘good’ rapper is defined by how many chains he has around his neck and how many honeys enjoy his wonderful company. Hip Hop, for a purist like myself, has never, and will never be about that. Illmatic is within the essence of the 90’ Golden Era, where rap was still rap and it was a cutthroat competition to see who could lyrically dissemble their counterpart with the most devilish words, comparisons and put downs you were ever likely to hear.
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Illmatic outlines Nas as a rapper, person, his upbringing, experiences and environment, encapsulating all this with the sound of the resurging East Coast Hip Hop scene; he gave Queensbridge the voice they had been long and hard searching for. To ask me what are my favourite songs on the album would be similar to asking me what came first, the chicken or the egg? I just couldn’t tell you. N.Y. State Of Mind starts us off and It Ain’t Hard To Tell ends it. What happens in the middle is just as magical.
Lyrically, Nasir Jones can’t be touched. He was twenty years old on the outside looking in, and burst onto the scene setting the bar for raw lyricism and ferociousness, daring anyone to match him, as his verbal pace and intricate poetic rhyming pattern not only challenged but also inspired his peers, all for the love of Hip Hop.
I was only five when this album came out, so give it a few years into my early teens and that’s when my ears got treated to this delightful album. For me to be talking about it nearly twenty years later with the same excitement and kiddish love I have from when I first heard it tells you everything. A fresh faced Nas on an absolutely timeless classic, that’s all I have to say.