I decided to re-review this joint. Enjoy.
April 19, 1994. A single tape of 39 minutes and 43 seconds revolutionizes an art form called hip-hop. No matter what precedes this album nor what comes after, April 20th was a new day for hip-hop. Just like the later predecessors drew influence from innovative artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Krs-One, such was Nas’ influence on hip-hop. In many senses Illmatic became a manual of sorts, a holistic Qu’ran for any rapper truly seeking the approval of underground heads. Illmatic was Nas’ Starry Night, the endless ideal that even the architect would never again achieve. Aside from being a cultural bookmark and divisor, this album also clearly marks Nas progression from lazy-eyed freestyle kingpin to someone who truly deserved the cosign from Main Source and MC Serch. Chronicling the rise of a young street dweller who came up in an almost the identical pattern as Big Daddy Kane. Starting off on a classic posse cut - for Kane it was The Symphony, for Nasir it was Back To The Grill and Live At The Barbeque - and then growing to infamy with a classic first album. Both Long Live The Kane and Illmatic also only consist of 10 songs. However, that’s where the comparisons end. Kane entered the history books but Nas re-wrote the history books.
Back in the day when Q-Tip was a teenager, intro’s like these were a dime a dozen. In reality, it may seem like it’s just Nas and AZ bullshittin’ over an prehistoric Grand Wizard Theodore instrumental- Subway Theme to be exact- but this track unconsciously sets the tone for the rest of the album.
N.Y. State Of Mind
This song is why The Genesis is such an effective intro. You expect to hear a lounged-back Main Source (Live At The Barbeque) sound, but Primo and Nas deliver anything but. Those dirty drums start kicking, that bassline just floats along the instrumental, and the one piano key ominously ends the loop. Nas adds a memorable first verse that seems to never end, but still effortlessly seams into the hook. Simplistic beyond comparison, yet all Primo needs is a quick vocal from Eric B and Rakim’s Mahogany and Nas is off. In the second verse, Nas simply unleashes countless quotables until Primo lets the beat go.
Life’s A Bitch
You go from the chill freestyle vibe of N.Y. State Of Mind to the comfortably rushed atmosphere that engrosses this whole song. Regardless, AZ has earned unanimous acclaim for his verse simply annihilating L.E.S.’s jazz-tinged masterpiece. However, Nas answers back with an equally poignant lyrical performance. But, it’s Olu Dara who kills it on the cornet, when L.E.S. allows his instrumental to flow free.
The World Is Yours
To this day, Pete Rock has never bested this masterpiece. As a producer, Pete has an legacy of often outshining the artists that utilize his instrumentals. Not so here, it’s a purely synchronous sound that is made for each other, the hip hop version of peanut butter & jelly. It’s ironic how Nas changes subjects in the middle of the song. First verse is a dead-on Scarface impression that would make Brad Jordan blush, but the second verse is pure brilliance disguised as braggadocio.
Don’t ever doubt Large Professor! Who else has the audacity to sample Jaz-O in the presence of Average White Band? Nas, not to be bested, changes up the flow two or three times per verse. Word to Marcus Garvey. Those steely drums are just one of a kind, and are just begging to be sampled. More impressive, are all the cultural tidbits Nas manages to drop in four minute’s time, while addressing his own problems at the same time. Don’t plant that seed, if you can’t feed is the moral of this story.
Nas changes up from a fast-slow, up-down flow to a consistent one, and simply unleashes a verbal tangent that will never be equaled. This sounds nothing like Primo though, doesn’t fit in with his catalogue by any means, nonetheless Primo comes through with some crazy samples on this one. That ever-present moaning on loop is Get out of My Life, Woman by Lee Dorsey, and perhaps the greatest sample DJ Premier ever used is Pickin’ Boogers by Biz Markie. That was good thinking. I still freeze up a little when I hear the last two bars of this song:
True in the game, as long as blood is blue in my veins
I pour my Heineken brew to my deceased crew on memory lane
The Abstract comes through with an instrumental of majestic proportions, not at all comparable to the work of Ali Shaheed Muhammad. It’s interesting to hear Q-Tip’s productions, since he could always hold his own on an MPC, but subsequently let Ali Shaheed Muhammad handle the work behind the breaks. On a linguistic tip, this song comes much weaker than the predecessing tracks, but Nas shows flashes of the indirect storytelling that would flesh out later with the ill-fated Firm. From 4:19 and onwards Nas bullies this instrumental lyrically.
One Time 4 Your Mind
A head-bopper in every sense of the word. That slow flow, the effortless rhyming that just simultaneously ensues from this immaculate blunt-head’s paradise. Large Pro comes through again with an deep bassline complemented by twangy drums that just slow everything down. Perfection in the form of audio marijuana ganja.
This marks the transition of Nas from a spiteful yet protagonistic emcee to an rapper with lyrical prowess nearly unmatched. This song sounds much less Illmatic and much more It Was Written, not in a negative sense, but moreso in terms of stylistics and delivery. Like a posse cut, minus the weed carriers and excess baggage. Did Nas really run with a crew called “The Shorty-Busters”? Let’s hope not for his sake, because that’s just embarassing. Also probably the first time I’ve ever seen Primo simply utilizing one sample.
It Ain’t Hard To Tell
This instrumental alone is all the imagery you need to envision the 90’s in one complete sound. One of those moving send-off’s that puts you in the right state of mind every time. A N.Y. State Of Mind!
It’s fair to say that Illmatic is the best hip hop album of all time, and therefore this review should be worthless to most people. If you don’t already own this album in any capacity, do yourself a favor.