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Classic Album: Nas’ “Illmatic” (Review & Video)

Posted by Matt Juss on 01/25/10 | Filed under Top Stories, Features, Nas, Classic Albums
Nas Illmatic Album Cover
April of 1994 was a game-changing month for the music industry, on the east and west coasts.

In the pacific northwest, Kurt Cobain, songwriter and frontman for the band Nirvana, was found dead at his Washington home, shocking everyone in the nation. But as the industry lost one great talent, the month also brought a new talent on the other side of the country, rapper Nas.

On April 19, 1994, Nas released his debut album, “Illmatic”, which is considered by many to be the rebirth of East Coast hip-hop. Although the album didn’t have much commercial success when it was released, it eventually was certified gold in sales in 1996.

I don’t think many in the industry realized it at the time, but the album would change the landscape of hip-hop. Prior to the release of “Illmatic” the hip-hop industry had devolved into a disjointed genre, especially in style and location.

With the rise of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row Records, the west coast and Los Angeles seemed to be the new capital of hip-hop. Along with development of thoughtful rappers like A Tribe Called Quest, the hip-hop scene was changing.

With things up for grabs on the east coast, Nasir Jones took his chance. On “Illmatic”, the Queensbridge native displayed some raw and gritty beats that reflected the violent times that were crippling the New York streets. But more importantly, he brought on a unique poetic style that combined the image of gangsta rap with the thoughtful narrative and deep analysis often found in conscious rap.

Along with the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas helped firmly re-establish the New York City hip-hop scene as the center of the rap world.

What makes “Illmatic” so unique, so timeless, is how is concise and simple it is. The album consists of only ten tracks, with no skits, no wasted time, and no mainstream-sounding beats. Every track is great, but “Life’s A Bitch,” “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” and "N.Y. State of Mind” standout to me as all-time classics.

It Ain’t Hard To Tell” has some of the most illustrative and sharp verses in rap history, with Nas rapping: “The buddha monk's in your trunk, turn the bass up/Not stories by Aesop/Place your loot up, parties I shoot up/Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L/School a fool well, you feel it like Braille/It ain't hard to tell.”

On “Life’s A Bitch”, which features AZ (the only guest star on the album), Nas spits one of the cleverest lines of his career: “I switched my motto -- instead of sayin’ fuck tomorrow/That buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto.”

Over a decade before Jay-Z released his ode to NYC with “Empire State of Mind”, Nas crafted his own anthem to the city where he resides. “N.Y. State of Mind” has very visual and poetic lyrics, and is easily one of the best hip-hop tracks of all-time. Nas spits one of the most culturally significant lines when he raps: “It drops deep as it does in my breath/I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.”

Nas worked with numerous producers, including Large Professor, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock, who each extensively contributed to the album. The resulting product is a profound lyrical and thoughtful lineup that perfectly illustrates Nas’s skills as a rapper. By using multifaceted rhyming patterns, clever wordplay, and an SAT-level vocabulary, he took the art of rapping to new heights. Today he is considered one of, if not the best, lyricists of all time, and “Illmatic” is his magnum opus, his defining work.

Although Nas was only 20 years old when he recorded “Illmatic”, his imposing voice and ability to paint realistic portraits of the urban world reflected an aptitude far beyond his years. Regarding his age on “Life’s A Bitch”, he raps: “I woke up early on my born day, I'm twenty years of blessing/The essence of adolescent leaves my body now I'm fresh in/My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it/One quarter through life some God-ly like thing created.” He was a boy among men, but after “Illmatic”, he towered over everyone.

This album raised the stakes for the next generation of rappers in NY, including, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Talib Kweli. The ripple effect that started from the release of “Illmatic” is still felt in the hip-hop industry today.

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