28 years ago today on April 19th, one of the most important rap albums ever dropped. Emceed by a 20 year old kid from Queens named Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known nowadays simply as Nas, Illmatic has gone down as one of the best, if not the best, and most influential hip hop albums to ever come out. It has been poured over, its word studied, its themes discussed and its legacy worshiped by hip hop fans all over the world. So, what makes Illmatic so special?
Illmatic is not exceptionally long, it has only one feature, its production consists of simple drum loops and samples and it is brutally honest. While for some projects these may come off as negatives to the overall quality of the album. For Illmatic, these are what make the album Illmatic. Illmatic is only 10 songs long (counting the intro track) and clocks in just under 40 minutes long. Nas does not overstay his welcome, but at the same time takes you into his life in such an effective way that it feels (with the risk of sounding cliché) like you are seeing the world through his eyes. From the very first bar you hear from Nas on N.Y. State of Mind, “rappers, I monkey flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kicking, inflictin’ composition,” it is evident that this is not another kid wanting to test his skills rapping. The control of his flow, the precision of his words and rhymes that come from them, they all sound like they are coming from a veteran of the art form, not a teenager making his first project. Illmatic in its simplest form is poetry about Nas’s life. Nas does this all on his debut album with minimal help lyrically, he has one feature from his friend AZ on “Life’s a B***h,” who comes in with a standout verse that goes straight into the now-iconic chorus of the song, “life’s a b***h and then you die.” The former chorus giving a snapshot into what the feeling was among Nas’ cohorts in Queensbridge. If “Life’s a B***h” gives a more desolate look into the psyche of the residents of Queensbridge, “The World is Yours” gives a ting of hope to the album. Produced by legendary hip-hop producer and artist Pete Rock, Nas raps on arguably one of the most iconic hip hop beats of all time. Nas raps about similar issues that he mentions throughout the album but with the added concept that, while all of this is happening the world is still yours to take. Telling the people that came from similar circumstances as Nas, that it is possible to make it. Nas, a nineteen year old kid at the time was able to compile one of the strongest groups of producers on an album ever. Illmatic had Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Q-Tip among others. Illmatic features a tracklist that compounds upon itself culminating in the final song of the album “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” featuring Nas summing up the album with his final line “Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell; it ain’t hard to tell.” In his simplest form, Nas is a poet explaining in verse what life is like in Queensbridge. Illmatic was not only formative for New York hip hop in the 90s, it was also extremely important in hip hop finding a mainstream audience. Illmatic has been routinely been heralded as hip hop at its purest, exactly what is advertised. Just by looking at the iconic cover of young Nas across the streets of New York it is invoking a theme of Nas and streets being one. Or perhaps the city birthing Nas, it is truly up to your own interpretation. That is the beauty of Illmatic, you do not have to be from Queenbridge or have grown up experiencing what Nas is rapping about to listen. While people, like myself, who have never experienced anything similar to the things that Nas has experienced and laid out on his songs, it can give us a snapshot into his life in Queens. While we may not ever be able to fully understand what Nas and many others have gone through by listening to what a poet like Nas has to say on Illmatic we can understand a little more. This “review” or perhaps a retrospective is by no means the best breakdown of what Nas has to offer on his landmark album. This short of an article will give you only a glimpse into the brilliance put to wax by Nas and his team, whole books can and have been written about this album. So, I recommend that you go and listen to the album for yourself so that you can experience it as Nas intended.