April 19th, 1994. The birth of one of the most celebrated hip-hop albums. The album cover shows Nas as a child with the projects behind him, is often regarded as one of the greatest covers of all time. I often remember that afternoon when one of my cousin’s friends played it for us and at the time, I didn’t even know what I was listening to. He was spitting about life experiences at his young age. For years, this album was often debated about its impact on the hip-hop culture. Is it the best debut album by a hip-hop artist? Is this the best album of Nas’ career? Commercial impact? This album only sold 59k in its first week and only has gone platinum. The low sales was attributed to bootlegging. But album reviews from critics were rave (The Source gave it 5 mics.) So I’m going to run through this album and offer my thoughts on this great album.
1. “The Genesis“: The beginning, the ground level of this album as Nas talks with his brother, Jungle and AZ. There’s a sample from the movie, Wild Style and also you hear Nas’ spitting his verse from Main Source’s “Live At The Barbeque“. “Niggas don’t listen man, representin’ it’s Illmatic”
2. “N.Y. State of Mind“: “Rappers, I monkey flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kickin/Musician, inflictin’ composition/Of pain; I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine/Holding an M-16, see with the pen I’m extreme, now“. Nas rapping over DJ Premier’s production was one of the most wonder sounds that hit our ears. Nas gave listeners a glimpse into what goes on in New York City at that time. Then when Nas dropped these bars at the end of the first verse (“It drops deep as it does in my breath/I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death/Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined/I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind“), I was like damn this shit is crazy dope. Another dope line from this record is “The smooth criminal on beat breaks/Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes“.
3. “Life’s a Bitch“: What I like most about this track is The Gap Band sample of “Yearning For Your Love“. This is the track that nabbed AZ a record deal. The first two bars of AZ’s verse were fire (“Visualizing the realism of life in actuality/Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary/And my mentality is money-orientated/I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it“) Then the hook was one of the most repeated at the time (“Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/Cause you never know when you’re gonna go“) Nas’ verse was about reflecting whenever I listen to it (“Got my first piece of ass smokin blunts with hash/Now it’s all about cash in abundance/Niggas I used to run with is rich or doing years in the hundreds/I switched my motto; instead of saying “fuck tomorrow”/That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto”) Just incredible that this song is still dope twenty years later. Nas’ father Olu Dara is playing the trumpet on the outro of the record. Timeless music here.
4. “The World Is Yours“: “I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi til I’m charged/Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin” Hearing this reminds me of when I write and when you’re feeling it, the words just goes beyond the margin. Years later, some lines within this first verse would be used in later songs. “Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with/The thief’s theme – play me at night, they won’t act right” was used in 2004′s “Thief’s Theme” and “I’m out for presidents to represent me (say what?)/I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” was sampled on Jay-Z’s “Dead President’s II“, which would be used as fuel as the beef between the two artists years later. The third verse was famous for the reference of Mike Tyson’s rape conviction in 1992. (“And I’m amped up, they locked the champ up, even my brain’s in handcuffs/Headed for Indiana, stabbing women like the Phantom“) Pete Rock’s jazz like production makes this one that you can vibe out to on a chill night.
5. “Halftime“: This track was actually featured in the movie Zebrahead back in 1992. Nas’ flow here was different than was popular from other rappers during that year. (“Back in ’83 I was an MC sparkin’/But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and/Kick my little raps cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand/And now in every jam I’m the fuckin’ man/I rap in front of more niggas than in the slave ships“)
6. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)“: Man Nas got off on this track and DJ Premier’s laid back production… BRUH!!!! Nas talking about the old days on this record. (“I hung around the older crews while they sling smack to dingbats/They spoke of Fat Cat, that nigga’s name made bell rings, black/Some fiends scream, about Supreme Team, a Jamaica Queens thing/Uptown was Alpo, son, heard he was kingpin, yo/Fuck “rap is real”, watch the herbs stand still/Never talking to snakes cause the words of man kill”) You could learn game from the older ones while growing up as a shorty and that’s what Nas alluded to towards the end of that verse.
7. “One Love“: I didn’t know at the time that Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest was producer as well. Nas on this track is penning a letter to a friend that’s locked up and he’s talking about what’s going on in the neighborhood. (“But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach/It’s bugged, plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime/Hanging out with young thugs that all carry nines/And night time is more trife than ever/What up with Cormega, did you see him, are y’all together?/If so then hold the fort down, represent to the fullest“) The last verse on this track was acted out in the movie, Belly.
8. “One Time 4 Your Mind“: Listening to Large Professor’s production here makes me miss how the music and rhymes meshed in the 90′s. (“Right, right, what up niggas, how y’all? It’s Nasty, the villain/I’m still writing rhymes, but besides that I’m chillin’/I’m trying to get this money, God, you know the hard times, kid/Shit, cold be starving make you wanna do crimes kid/But I’mma lamp, cause a crime couldn’t beat a rhyme“)
9. “Represent“: Nas takes it back to Queensbridge on this track. From what Nas spits on this track, it’s not a walk in the park. (“Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/Get murdered on a humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble/The corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals/Who don’t care, guzzling beers, we all stare/At the out-of-towners, they better break North/Before we get the four pounders and take their face off“)
10. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell“: If I had one to chose one song from Illmatic that I absolutely fucked with, it would be this track. Armed with production from Large Professor (who samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature“), it was just a great way to end the album. (“This rhythmatic explosion is what your frame of mind has chosen/I’ll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozen/Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin/End like Leviathan, it’s deep, well let me try again/Wisdom be leaking out my grapefruit, troop/I dominate break loops, giving mics men-e-strual cycles“)
Ten tracks from an album that help defined an era of the 90′s. Twenty years later, it’s no denying that Illmatic is a classic album. Today’s music is unfairly given that title but once you reach this landmark, you can fairly assess that album deserves to be mentioned among the greats. If you ask the majority of hip-hop heads from the 90′s, this album would be mentioned as one that was a must have in your collection. Pay homage to the great.