What Went Right With… Illmatic by Nas?

What Went Right With... Illmatic by Nas? An image of a brick wall with the word Nas on it to accompany the review of the classic Hip-Hop albym by

During the late eighties and early nineties Hip-Hop was beginning to splinter into various sub-genres; we had Gangsta Rap (Ice Cube), Conscious Rap (Public Enemy), Alternative Hip-Hop (A Tribe Called West), and Hip-Pop (MC Hammer). Amongst this varied musical landscape, certain artists began to juxtapose rap with outside influences and in 1992 and 1993 groups like The Fu-Schnickens and The Wu-Tang Clan began to intertwine Hip-Hop with cartoons and Kung-Fu movies, but despite these burgeoning idiosyncratic styles it was predominantly Gangsta Rap that dominated the Hip-Hop genre. During this same period groups like Gang Starr also began to blend aspects of conscious Hip-Hop and tales of ghetto life with self-examination to create a grittier yet introspective style more akin to the early eighties approach pioneered by the likes of The Furious Five. Building on this style, Nas who had appeared in Main Source’s Live At The Barbecue a few years earlier released his début album in 1994, and with his ten track offering he made this urban-aware East Coast aesthetic an internationally recognised style.

Illmatic is an example of a short yet perfect album; there is absolutely no fat, the LP is a lean, to the point, slice of reality straight from the streets of Queens, New York. The album opens with “The Genesis” with the sound of a train and a sample from the Subway Theme by Grand Wizard Theodore bumping in the background, with these elements the album begins by reinforcing New York’s importance in the creation of Hip-Hop. With Nas’ own line from Live At The Barbecue also being heard in the intro, the track establishes Nas’ standing amidst Rap’s East Coast origins. Illmatic is an album therefore that is very aware of Hip-Hop history, it both samples and references songs and lyrics from past greats and the album has in turn been sampled and referenced by many Hip-Hop artists from the nineties, noughties, and teenies. The title “Genesis” is therefore quite apt as well as being slightly ironic, this opening track was intended to encompass the past but Illmatic has since become the source, the origin, and the influence for Hip-Hop music in the future.

The first song on Illmatic is “N.Y. State Of Mind” with Nas giving a Kool G Rap type flow over DJ Premier’s rugged and gritty, piano-laden production which contains a sample of Joe Chambers’ Mind Rain. There’s also a sample from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Mahogany” giving a nod to one of the all-time great MC’s. With Nas delivering lines like “I never sleep ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” it shows that he himself is capable of being in the same league as Rakim. Then comes “Life’s A Bitch” featuring AZ, the track is produced by L.E.S. and co-produced by Nas himself and this joint is a more mellow offering thanks to the Gap Band sample. For me it was AZ’s opening verse and his flawless flow that was the most impressive back in ’94 and it had me waiting for his solo release. Lines from this song like “I woke up early on my born day, I’m twenty, it’s a blessing” are still quoted to this day by the likes of Joey Bada$$ and this goes to show the everlasting impression the LP has had on many generations of Hip-Hop musicians.

The next song is “The World Is Yours” and this is just a classic and unforgettable track in every way. Produced by Pete Rock the track is jazzy and infectious, making everybody who hears it instantly nod their head. The song samples another Hip-Hop great; T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” and it also features numerous quotables from Nas. Similar to Wu-Tang this was one of the first times I heard outside influences in a Hip-Hop song with “stabbing women like the phantom” referencing The Town That Dreaded Sundown and the line “I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi ’til I’m charged, then write in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin” showing an awareness of historical struggles by minority cultures outside of America. Like a game of pass-it-on the line “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” was later used by Ski and Jay-Z to create a track on Jay’s classic début album Reasonable Doubt, once again proving the importance of Illmatic within Hip-Hop music.

“Halftime” produced by Large Professor features sleigh bells from Average White Band and some horns from Gary Byrd during the chorus. With lines like this Nas showed his evolution from the streets to the stage… “Nasty Nas has to rise cause I’m wise, this is exercise ’til the microphone dies. 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”

“Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)” produced by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier is a nice, relaxed track with an “ooh ooh” sample from Reuben Wilson. There’s also the “coming out of Queensbridge” sample from Marley Marl and Craig G. The song speaks about Nas’ life and upbringing in Queensbridge with him rapping “I rap divine, God, check the prognosis. Is it real or showbiz? My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses. Live amongst no roses, only the drama for real. A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja…”

Next up is “One Love” produced by Q-Tip (who a lot of people forget helped create some classic songs for Nas and Mobb Deep during this era). With the glockenspiel sample from The Heath Brothers the joint is a beautiful addition to the LP. With the song taking the form of a letter to someone in prison, it was a unique concept in the early nineties. The track contained the line “What’s up with Cormega, did you see him? Are you together?” referring to Cormega (a fellow Rapper from Q.B.) being in prison during that time. The track was subsequently referred to in Cormega’s reply also titled “One Love” from his début album “Testament”.

“One Time 4 Your Mind” produced by Large Professor is a slow track containing a more early-nineties flow from Nas, sounding more like an excerpt from a live cypher than a mastered track. Then comes “Represent” produced by DJ Premier, an understated track which features a chorus with a rowdy vibe. With a group of people shouting “represent!” in the background, the song contains references to The Bridge Wars and also sports great lines like “somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game” something which again has been referenced by many Rappers including Jay-Z. The track even has Nas bragging about being a dropout way before Kanye West.

“It Ain’t Hard To Tell” produced by Large Professor is a great way of ending the album, with a sample from Michael Jackson‘s “Human Nature”, the song is uplifting and with Nas rapping “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing” it just affirmed his lyrical creativity in the golden era. Lines from this track in particular have been sampled and referenced countless times, proving what an impact this song and the entire album has had on the Hip-Hop community.

Never since Purple Rain has an album this short made such a big impact on music, but having said that Illmatic wasn’t a huge commercial success during the time of its release and apart from underground Hip-Hop fans, the mainstream didn’t seem to have a palette for introspective and meaningful lyrics. Popular culture at the time wanted stereotypical bullshit such as Gangsta Rap, they didn’t want conscious or thoughtful lyricism. Today the mainstream seems to regret their initial under-promotion of the album and Illmatic has since benefited (or slightly suffered) from a slew of retrospective overrating from the mainstream media. Not that Illmatic isn’t worthy of the praise it now receives but I distinctly remember these types of people not promoting Illmatic with such vigour during its initial release. Directly because of this, Illmatic sold under 60,000 copies in 1994 whereas something like The Chronic sold 3,000,000 copies, in fact the album took a further seven years before it reached platinum status whereas The Chronic went 6 times platinum confirming once and for all that the public generally prefer studio gangsters to street poets.

Back to the topic of retrospective praisers, these switch-siders may now laud Illmatic as a classic, but real Hip-Hop heads already knew that fact back in 1994 when the album was under-selling, where were all these motherfuckers back in the mid nineties? These hipster-ish interlopers who now speak about Nas’ début album during college lectures, in poncey publications, and in upper-middle-class articles are the epitome of annoying, they’ll only recognise a great work when it’s too late. Who gives a fuck if these uppity pricks like Illmatic now? It mattered to Hip-Hop if you liked Illmatic in the mid-nineties. If these same people had approved of it in ’94 we may have avoided all the perils and pitfalls Hip-Hop encountered as it morphed into the mass-consumed, hollow shitfest it is today. Maybe more Illmatics and less No Way Outs and we’d still have a credible genre. With the metamorphosis of Hip-Hop artists from street poets to suit-wearing, pimp-slash-gangstas, even Nas slowly became the antitheses of what he purported to be during his Illmatic days. When fans saw Nas pretending to be a Mafioso kingpin in the music video to Street Dreams (from his second album It Was Written) all our hearts dropped, but I guess I’ll leave that subject for another article.

So let’s not detract from the brilliance of Illmatic, the album was undoubtedly a classic from beginning to end, this release and this period is what Nas should and probably will be remembered for. This is without a doubt the best work from the Queensbridge lyricist, I just wish that more people had acknowledged that fact back in 1994 before Nas and East Coast Hip-Hop regrettably began to change their style.


Beats: 9/10

Rhymes: 10/10

Overall: 10/10

13 replies »

  1. Illmatic is one of the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time, but It Was Written is in my opinion Nas’ best work. The production was much better. Musically, It Was Written was a more complete album. So what if he wore a suit and pretended to be a gangster? If the rhymes and the beats are tight, then who cares? However, this is not to reduce Illmatic’s quality. It is still a classic album. NY State of Mind, Life’s a Bitch, The World is Yours, Memory Lane, It Ain’t Hard to Tell are some of my favourite hip hop songs of all time. The World is Yours (Q-Tip Remix) could have been included.

    • It’s foolish to have the opinion of “so what” when a musician switches styles for the sake of appealing to the mainstream. The video to Street Dreams was tacky, gaudy, it referenced Casino (an overrated Gangster flick of the day) and the song itself contained an interpolation of a Eurythmics song. All this was to look/sound like Bad Boy (who created that look/sound and who made huge profits from it) I assume so Nas could make money and gain crossover success too. Even Cormega mentioned it in his diss track… “Talkin about Street Dreams rockin a pink ass suit, what kind of dreams you niggas workin with, man?”

      The album was largely produced by Trackmasters, there was only one DJ Premier track, and no Large Pro track, for most fans that was like Nas trying too hard to sound like everybody else, even Dr. Dre produced a song and we all know Nas’ association with Dre fucked up The Firm and had Cormega dropped from the line-up.

      I also completely disagree with your view that It Was Written was Nas’ best work, yes it contained great songs and great lyricism (I Gave You Power, Shootouts, Live Nigga Rap etc.) but there was nothing on-par with The World Is Yours, and what the fuck was all that drug-kingpin shit in Affirmative Action? All these mafioso elements led to the downfall of Hip-Hop, because if someone like Nas who created Illamtic (thoughtful/introspective/clever/street-focussed) could be tempted to act like the rest (flashy/suited/cocaine and bitches etc.) then why shouldn’t everybody else act like that too? If you can convince the king to change his ways, all the servants will follow.

  2. Do you think Nas should be considered as one of the all time greats based on “Illmatic” alone ? I mean Nas has been in the game since 1990/1991 . I don’t see any of his albums after “It Was Written” or his Firm stuff (1998 to present) as being classic or great . There are a lot of East Coast American credible emcees that are as good as or even better than Nasir when it comes to introspective lyrics . I’m sure you can at least think of a dozen (some of them used to be closely associated with Nas — and Jay-Z) .

    The same thing exists with Nas as does with Biggie (Rest In Paradise) and Black Thought .

    You always hear of them as being “all-time greats of hip hop” . These statements often go unchallenged . I know all of those guys had good production . They sound good musically . But lyrically I don’t think they hold a candle to K-Rino , Ras Kass , Vinnie Paz , Chino XL , Apathy , Diabolic , Slug , Goretex , Smoothe Da Hustler , R.A. The Rugged Man , Ill Bill , One Be Lo , Rakim , Big Daddy Kane , (prime) Canibus , Immortal Tech , Celph Titled or Kool G Rap . And of course the late , great Big L (Rest In Paradise) and Big Punisher (Rest In Paradise) . Also the late , great Viro The Virus (Rest In Paradise) is almost never mentioned as an incredibly talented emcee .

    I know we both share similar thoughts about the mainstream when it comes to hip hop .

    Do you think for underground / independent heads that the “wordsmith legend” status of B.T. , Biggie and Nas should be recognized ?

    • Is Black Thought thought of as highly as Nas and Jay-Z? I didn’t think he was on the same level in the mainstream’s eyes.

      On the topic of Nas and Jay, yes they had/have talent but in the periphery of Jay-Z there was Jaz-O, Sauce Money, & Tone Hooker who were equally as skilled (Jaz-O was arguably better) and around Nas I’d say that AZ had a slicker flow and delivery.

      Illmatic was a classic album but you’re right, nothing he’s made since has ever matched it. There have been songs within weaker albums that are classics (I Gave You Power/Nas Is Like/Ether for example) but Nas has done some questionable things (song with Puffy, mafioso content etc.) that makes him look like a sellout when compared to his Illmatic incarnation.

      Rappers held in high regards by the mainstream are and always will be artists who are overrated to some degree by the mainstream media, nobody is ever going to mention the likes of Ras Kass because the media never plugged him. The public usually repeat what is told to them by the “learned” journalists but these journos are usually biased, pretentious, and ignorant middle-class fakes. The fact that they never listened to Smoothe Da Hustler’s or Ras Kass’ album means they never promoted them and in turn the public or mainstream Hip-Hop fans will therefore not mention them or call them “all time greats” (hence the Eminem and Chino XL problem we’ve already talked about).

      The title of “G.O.A.T.” means different things to different people – people with a blinkered view of Hip-Hop will say Biggie/Nas/Jay/Tupac are the greatest because they are comparing them to mainstream Hip-Hop from the 90s, similarly, people today who hold Kendrick Lamar in high regards are people who are comparing him to mainstream rappers today (mainly dumbed-down Trap). Someone can’t be the “greatest” when people’s view of the genre is so limited.

      Back to Nas, even with all his bad decisions, average albums etc. he is still a very talented rapper. I wouldn’t say he’s the greatest but he’s up there in the Top 20.

  3. bruh i was born after illmatic was released, i never grew up in the 90s, yet i love 80s to 90s hip hop (love the boom bap sound man), but you said a peson who did not like the album in the 90s are phony hipsters whose opinions don’t matter. btw can you make a review of 36 chambers, liquid swords, cuban linx or uncontrolled substance? thanks. love from africa. peace.

  4. Illmatic may be the best short album ever, maybe 36 Chambers or something. In terms of songs I’d say Madvillainy is the best long album ever but I don’t know if it’s 46 minute run time matters more than its song count of 22. What’s with all of these great albums inspiring shitty rappers, by the way? Do you have an idea on that?

    • I have no idea why classic albums influence garbage. You’d think lame rappers would try to emulate them. BTW 36 chambers is 13 tracks and just over an hour long so I wouldn’t call it a short album. I’d put Creepin On Ah Come Up up there too (8 tracks/29 minutes) it was a great EP before Bone Thugs sold out. The War Report at 20 tracks/70 minutes was a brilliant long album.

  5. Yeah I guess 36 chambers is more of an average length album. I’ve never listened to The War Report, guess I’ll go check that one out. Also I don’t know why either. Why 36 Chambers influenced gangsta garbage (without the consciousness or cleverness), why Madvillainy (literally one of the most dense albums ever) influenced mumble rap and cloudy production on hip-pop, I could keep going too. I don’t think a classic album with staying power has even been released in the last decade, probably because of classic albums influencing garbage. Even To Pimp a Butterfly, as overrated as it is, is slowly losing the popularity and support it once had as one of the best albums of all time (corroborating what you said five years ago btw).

  6. I love your style of writing mate – think it’s hilarious. However re. the second-to-last paragraph, I for one was not even a sperm cell in my dad’s ballsack when Illmatic was released, and only first listened to it at the age of 16/17. So my point is don’t be too scathing lol, hiphop shouldn’t be guarded by some pretentious clique like that (although I completely agree with your sentiments on the mainstream bullshit that’s currently out there).
    When I first heard Illmatic, I was stunned, and hooked, almost immediately by the noise of the train tracks.
    Peace, from the UK
    P.S. check out my blog, was genuinely planning on writing a review on Illmatic before I saw your review on twitter. Keep up the good work, this website is jokes

    • Thanks, I’ll check out your blog when I have time. BTW that paragraph isn’t me disparaging new or younger listeners. My problem is with folk the same age as your pa’s nuts, who ignored albums like Illamtic when it came out but now act like they always liked it – because it’s the “right” or “agreed” thing to say. Music is for everybody but retrospective review-changers and outright liars can get fucked.

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