When discussing great rappers, depending on who is in the conversation, a slew of names are mentioned; for example, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Eminem, and the lamented greats Biggie Smalls and Tupac. Each of the aforementioned artists have been influenced or admired the work of a hip-hop album that truly defined rap as an art form with many different rhyme schemes and internal rhyming patterns.
Even though I was almost finished my kindergarten in 1994, I can look back at “Illmatic” by Nas and understand this album 16 years later as not just the precursor to great east coast rap, but also as the paragon of what a hip-hop album is supposed to be. “Illmatic” is deemed a gem by critics and hip-hop lovers everywhere.
If you are a rap fan, it is a must that this album be put into your everyday rotation on your iPod, computers, MP3 players, and even compact-disc players if you still own one. Rapper Nas has made the blueprint for rap artists; in fact, he subverted the current hip-hop culture by claiming the art dead in latter months of 2006.
Although Nas’ buzz has died in the limelight and radio plays, he is forever engraved in the history of hip-hop. His album sheds light on the post-crack NYC days. Nas paints aural pictures of the inner-city struggle—“hittin L’s,” “pack a black .32,” and “keep an eye out for Jake.”
The intro to this album gives a cinematic feel. In the background, the listener can vaguely make out Nas’ first recorded song “Live at the BBQ” with Main Source. Nas’ infamous line can be found on this song. “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus.” Not that Nas is a bad mofo for taking jabs at Jesus, but it shows the roughness of the streets even at a young age.
“N.Y. State Of Mind” produced by DJ Premier keeps heads bobbing with its catchy bass sound and jazzy tone. We must remember that this is 1994 and some artists will never achieve what Nas did with this album.
“I ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testin’/ Give me a Smith and Wesson I’ll have niggas undressin’/ Thinkin’ of cash flow, buddah, and shelter/ Whenever frustrated I’m a hijack Delta/ In the PJ’s, my blend tape plays, bullets are strays/ Young b**** is grazed each block is like a maze/ Full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed.”
Nas captures the state of the impoverished mind of youth in NY during the 90s. How do you solve an irremediable problem? Let the public hear about it or see it. We would never know about some of the things going on in the world had it not been for the news cast about such places. Nas is reporting to us Live in his own CNN approach.
Nas is still a major influence in rap. He helped boost East Coast rap to its prominent position. He kept the art alive after Biggie and Pac died with his rap feud with Jay-Z. Jay-Z went from a fast bar-spitting rapper to a more paced-flow rapper. He got his style from Nas. He influenced Eminem with his detailed story-telling tactics. He gave Lil Wayne a little bit of fame with their rap beef. He even has a collection of verses that are straight-up disses to the late Biggie Smalls that could be deemed “dead wrong.”
But he continues to shed light on problems facing the teenage youth throughout the entire CD. On the song, “Life’s A Bitch,” we understand the thinking of the youth. For example, feature rapper AZ says, “Life’s a bitch and then you die; that’s why we get high/ ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
This album is not only priceless, but it is also timeless. “One Love” produced by Q-Tip is a letter to his friend in prison describing the recent change of events that consists of the jailed friend’s girlfriend hanging out with the wrong crew, a friend’s niece being shot on her way from Jones Beach and a simple keep-your-head-up-while-your-locked-up message.
Shouting out the hoods in New York, Nas represents not only Queensbridge, NY, but he represents the struggle on the song “Represent.” Aside from this track, “One Time 4 Your Mind” is the pinnacle of the album.
“How y’all, it’s Nasty the villain, I’m still writing rhymes, but hesides that I’m chillin’/ I’m trying to get this money, God, you know the hard times kid. S***, cold be starving make you wanna do crimes kid.”
The struggle is imminent. Nas captures an entire culture of NY life as well as poverty life in the states everywhere. All he needed was one mic to tell his story. That story just happens to be the story of the everyman.
With impeccable instrumentals and lyrics, Nas stands alone when it comes to a classic album. With such a great piece of work, his career has been humbled by the fact that none of his work, as well as any other rapper’s catalog will ever come as close to perfection as “Illmatic” has come.
If you are a true rap fan, you need to own this album. If you own this album, you need to take the chance to be grateful for it. Without it, hip-hop wouldn’t be what it is today.