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Nas's Classic Album Debut: 'Illmatic'

Evan Piepho

Posted on September 28, 2020 20:06

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Nas, a legend of the hip hop scene, dropped his debut album in 1994 to universal acclaim. Many within the community consider 'Illmatic' the best hip hop album of all time. But what makes it so special?

A simple percussion rhythm reverberates in the brisk evening air of New York's Long Island City: four muted high hats overlay a crisp snare and a lagging kick drum. It is April 1994 and Nas's magnum opus, Illmatic, has just released. Heralded as one of the great hip hop albums of all time, Illmatic is the opening salvo of Nasir Jones's storied career. Spanning just ten tracks and 39 minutes of runtime, Nas's solo album debut is a concise, incisive account of life in the Queensbridge Houses — the largest public housing development in North America. Its span is brief by many contemporary hip hop albums' standards, but Illmatic's duration belies its substance. Gritty depictions of the perils of street life underscore the harsh reality of a young Queensbridge native; dancing between braggadocio and humility, Nas weaves a narrative of living inured to realities of crime, numb to its effects, while actively participating in the hustle.

Illmatic begins with "The Genesis," a short introductory skit that finds Nas and his contemporaries, Jungle and AZ, exuding puerile aspirations of money and success over a bottle of Hennessy. It presents a stark contrast with the track to follow, "N.Y. State of Mind," a tale of the perils of life in the derelict Queensbridge projects. One of Nas's most renowned songs, "N.Y. State of Mind" is a tour de force of lyricism and rhyming: "Rappers; I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm/I be kickin', musician inflictin' composition." The lines of the track team with vivid storytelling of life on the streets of early 1990s New York City, languishing in a game of drugs and violence. Nas spits potent lyrics here, including perhaps his most iconic: "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death." It sets forth a strong precedent for the album, with intricate tracks to follow ranging from a retelling of the incarcerated plight ("One Love") to a cautious expression of youthful optimism ("The World is Yours"), and even a twinge of melancholic nostalgia ("Memory Lane"). Through just shy of 40 minutes, Nas's work spans a dizzying array of subjects, rhyme schemes, metaphors, double entendres, and more. And, though engulfed in a life of struggle, Nas fashions pulchritude from paucity.

While the fundamental merits of Illmatic as an album are undeniable — from its impeccable production courtesy of, notably, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier, to its unrelenting lyrical content from Nas and fellow emcee AZ — the album's influence in the genre's culture sets it apart. Hip hop luminaries such as Jay-Z, Common, and Ghostface Killah, as well as contemporary notables like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar have all cited Illmatic as a defining influence in their musicIllmatic is timeless, classic, and everlasting in hip hop. Or, in other words, ill.

Evan Piepho

Posted on September 28, 2020 20:06

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