“I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like…I told the story that way because I thought that it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t tell it. ” – Nas speaking decades later on Illmatic
In the early 1990s, east coast hip-hop was only just starting to catch up with the west. While artists like N.W.A dominated the airwaves, acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan were beginning to turn heads. Out of nowhere, some twenty year-old kid from Brooklyn who called himself Nasty Nas crawled out from the crime-ridden streets to drop a short, grimy little record titled Illmatic in 1994.
Before you even push play, the cover art tells you everything you need to know. Nas’ face as a child prominently stares back at you, set against brownstones and apartment buildings of his home. The cover itself is autobiographical, weaving a story before the real story even begins. This was a novel concept in hip-hop.
The first track, “The Genesis,” is a collage of sounds that brings you into Nas’ neighborhood. The rattling creaks of an elevated train ooze a New York feeling, and its title signals a beginning. Immediately it is clear that Nas is simply putting his own life down on record, and we are witnessing the birth of his current persona. He has grown up living in the streets, and now, at the extremely young age of nineteen, he is ready to conquer the world.
What follows is nine tracks that all maintain a consistent soundscape unprecedented in hip-hop. The dirty production set the bar high for DJ’s, and the music (mostly orchestrated by DJ Premier, who went on to become highly valued as a turntablist) provides Nas with the perfect atmosphere for his virtuoso rhyming. He is constantly summoning vivid imagery like a poet. For example:
On “N.Y. State of Mind”: Rappers I monkey-flip ‘em with the funky rhythm / I be kickin’, musician, inflicting composition of / Pain I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine, holding an / M16, see with a pen I’m extreme (Note the use of enjambment, a literary device rarely employed in all genres of music).
Also: Inhale deep like the words of my breath / I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death / I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times / Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind.
On “Halftime”: I got it going on, even flip a morning song / Every afternoon, I kick half the tune / And in the darkness, I’m heartless, like when the NARC’s hit / Word to Marcus Garvey; I hardly sparked it (Note how in those last two lines he rhymed the “ar-eh” sound seven times).
On “One Love”: [My] sentence begins indented with formality / My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology / Poetry, that’s a part of me.
Nas paints a picture with his music in the way that musicians dream about for their whole careers. Illmatic transports you to Queensbridge in the early 90s; you feel Nas’ longing to escape the drug dealers, the violence, the police brutality. It is a document of a young man’s struggle to find freedom using his gift, and the listener commiserates with him as he sits in rundown apartment building stairways, shooting dice with other gangsters and praying to live for another day.
Nas never lived up to the success of Illmatic, but that’s not to say he hasn’t continued to build up a strong discography. Records like It Was Written, Stillmatic, and God’s Son offer more looks into his genius mind, though never as cohesive. Nevertheless, Illmatic continues to sound fresh over twenty years later, probably because it possesses everything quintessential about hip-hop: perfectly constructed beats, adroit rhymes, and most importantly, a youthful spirit.
“You hear in my music what’s surrounded me and just to be able to elevate your mind a little bit further passed that through writing is bigger than one song. In order to do that and craft that, it’s on another plane and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for that album, truthfully.” – Kendrick Lamar
Key Tracks: All of ‘em