Released in April 1994, Illmatic is the debut full-length album from NYC-based rap legend Nas. While it originally sold only 60,000 copies in its first week, it has since been certified Platinum and is now considered one of the best albums of all time, hip-hop or otherwise. Together with Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Illmatic represents the foundation of 1990s East Coast hip-hop, providing a gritty alternative to the then-popular dance-oriented sound of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice while introducing a worthy (and ultimately tragic) adversary to the West Coast G-funk of Dr. Dre, 2Pac, and Snoop Dogg.
Why I’ve Been Avoiding It
In high school, I went through a phase where I refused to listen to anything without guitars. In my warped little teenage mind, that meant absolutely no pop or rap music (even though there are totally guitars in pop and rap music). Regardless, when my musical taste eventually began to expand, hip-hop felt like a foreign language. I could wax rhapsodic about why I loved Nirvana or Weezer for days, but I couldn’t find words to explain why I kept songs like Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” on repeat other than, “It’s catchy, I guess.” Since then, I’ve come to enjoy quite a bit of modern hip-hop — particularly Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city — but getting into Nas in particular seemed like a daunting task. He comes across as the consummate rapper’s rapper, the kind of guy you can’t really enjoy without knowing the genre’s intricacies inside and out. But after a deep dive into Illmatic, I’m beginning to see what all the fuss is about.
Very few albums can claim to be as influential as Illmatic. The complexity of Nas’ lyrics was truly unheard-of at the time, introducing elements of poetry to paint shockingly detailed word pictures of his environment. For example, “N.Y. State of Mind” employs enjambment (when one line of poetry flows into the next to allow for longer statements without breaking the poem’s meter) on the lines “Rappers, I monkey flip ’em, with the funky rhythm / I be kickin’, musician, inflictin’ composition / of pain. I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine.” Rarely used at the time, the technique allows Nas to stay on beat while telling a cohesive story. He also pioneered extremely complicated rhyme structures that took each syllable of every word into account. On “Halftime,” Nas writes, “When I attack, there ain’t an army that could strike back / So I react never calmly on a hype track,” rhyming not only “strike back” and “hype track” but also “ar-my” and “calm-ly.”
Illmatic also freed rappers to work with more than one producer on their albums, with Nas’ roster of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip representing a then-unprecedented assembly of talent. Their work is extraordinary, providing a subtle but effective backdrop that smartly emphasizes Nas’ lyrics. And while many later hip-hop albums became disjointed affairs featuring a variety of incongruous production styles, Illmatic is cohesive from front to back.
Perhaps the best word to describe the album would be immersive. The first sound you hear is the New York City subway, followed by an interlude featuring Nas, his brother Jungle, and his friend and fellow rapper AZ. It’s nothing dramatic, just a conversation amongst friends. But it’s gripping in its simplicity, giving listeners a glimpse of Nas’ world and pulling them into the scene along with him. The dark bass groove of “N.Y. State of Mind” hits even harder as a result, with Nas’ lyrics immersing listeners in the reality of the Queensbridge projects. In the midst of an intricately detailed gunfight with a rival crew, he raps that he “heard a few chicks scream” when shots rang out before ducking into a building lobby “full of children” after his gun jams. It’s a reminder that the setting isn’t a war zone inhabited solely by combatants; it’s a neighborhood filled with innocent bystanders, many of whom will go on to join the war themselves, whether out of necessity or a desire to “bring fame to their name.” It all combines to drive home Nas’ paranoia (“I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death”) in a visceral way.
The original conversation returns to kick off “Life’s a Bitch,” with AZ repeating his lines with slight variation before launching into the album’s only guest verse and dropping one of its most enduring hooks: “Life’s a bitch and then you die. That’s why we get high, ’cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” It’s a reminder that the life they’re living isn’t exciting or exotic, it’s terrifying and trying on the soul. Later, on “One Love,” Nas narrates a series of letters written to friends incarcerated at Rikers Island and the Elmira Correctional Facility, showing empathy for his imprisoned friends (“I hate it when your moms cries. It kinda makes me want to murder”) and revealing the horrendous conditions that often lead inmates to emerge broken and violent (“Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers. But maintain, when you come home the corner’s ours”). It’s an innovative lyrical perspective that again draws listeners into the scene, rendering the final verse, in which a 12-year-old boy tells Nas he needs to wear a bulletproof vest to protect himself from his enemies on the street, even more heart-breaking. Nas doesn’t sugarcoat the high-risk, no-reward game that he and his friends and family have been forced to play, and he ends the track on a dark note, with his young friend almost certain to end up in jail with the rest of his crew.
But while Nas doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life in the Queensbridge projects, he also takes time to celebrate the people who lived and, in some cases, died there. “Represent” ends with a literal thank-you list, including one of many shout-outs to his late friend Ill Will. Will also pops up earlier on “The World Is Yours,” where Nas kicks hip-hop’s obsession with the movie Scarface into high gear. Referencing main character Tony Montana’s rise from nothing, the song is titled after his motto, which is quoted throughout in an attempt to give hope to all those living similarly painful lives throughout New York City. In the end, Nas himself, who was able to rise above the fray through sheer talent and force of will, becomes the ultimate example of escape on the well-earned boast track “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” The album ends with the lines, “My poetry’s deep, I never fell. Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell.” It’s a closing message that drives home Nas’ hard-won success over seemingly insurmountable odds while foreseeing his massive influence on the hip-hop scene, which was never the same again.
Illmatic is required listening for anyone serious about hip-hop and a surprisingly smooth experience for anyone just getting into the genre. The album marks a crucial turning point in the rap game, with Nas throwing down the gauntlet to his fellow artists to step up their lyrical technique. More importantly, though, it’s intensely empathetic toward those in his community and throughout NYC who have been driven to the brink by extreme poverty, discrimination, and drug addiction. For anyone living in today’s gentrified version of the “Rotten Apple,” it’s important to remember that these conditions still exist, and Illmatic played and continues to play a crucial role in illuminating the problem.
“N.Y. State of Mind”
“The World Is Yours”