1994 hip-hop Album released by Nas (b. Nasir Jones) on Columbia. Arguably, the greatest hip-hop album of all time, due in part to phenomenal production, handled for the most part by the legendary DJ Premier, but tracks by Large Professor should not be overlooked. Of course, the real star of this LP is Nas and his remarkable rapping ability. His flows relate primarily to the New York drug scene of the late 1980's and early 1990's, but also touch on issues not related to the street life. He tears through the beats supplied to him at a breakneck pace, moving from one idea to the next before the listener can even grasp what hit them. This is what separates Illmatic from other innovative albums that were released at the same time. Peep a verse from "N.Y. State of Mind":

I got so many rhymes I don't think I'm too sane
Life is parallel to hell but I must maintain
and be prosperous, though we live dangerous
cops could just arrest me, blamin us, we're held like hostages
It's only right that I was born to use mics
and the stuff that I write, is even tougher than dice
I'm takin rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow
My rhymin is a vitamin, hell without a capsule
The smooth criminal on beat breaks
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes

Nas was clearly on top form when he dropped this album, as the entire record is filled with lyrics that will have you pressing rewind. He shows a complete mastery of the art form, especially in rhyming consecutive words and in creating elaborate rhyme schemes. Only one track (Life's a Bitch) has a guest shot, and the verse dropped by AZ somehow manages to stand next to Nas' lyrical onslaught. The track closes with a trumpet solo by Olu Dara, Nas' own father and an accomplished musician in his own right.

In short, this album is one of the finest examples of early 90's hip-hop, which I would consider to be the Golden Age of the genre.

Samples or references to Illmatic have appeared on numerous hip-hop songs, such as Common's "Resurrection," Encore's "Love & Hate". Ever heard a reference to the phrase "half man half amazin?" Yeah, that was Nas. The album has truly become a classic, one that any self-respecting hip-hop head will not be without. On the other hand, Nas has always had problems living up to the standard that Illmatic set, and I feel that he will never be able to escape the shadow that these 40 minutes of perfection have cast over him.

Track Listing:
1. The Genesis
2. N.Y. State of Mind
3. Life's a Bitch feat. AZ, Olu Dara
4. The World Is Yours
5. Halftime
6. Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)
7. One Love
8. One Time 4 Your Mind
9. Represent
10. It Ain't Hard To Tell

I fancy myself somewhat of a hip-hop scholar. I have been listening to hip-hop since 1994, and although my affection for the genre has waned at times, it has always been something I have returned to. At various times, various groups and movements within hip-hop have taken my attention. So it is a bit odd that it wasn't until now that I managed to buy a copy of one of hip-hop's seminal albums, Nas' Illmatic.

After listening to this, an album that most scholars and fans consider one of the best in hip-hop, if not the best, my first reaction was that the album was underwhelming. Does this mean that I was disappointed or thought that the album was hyped? Not at all. I had heard many of Nas' songs before, and had heard the consensus that this album was his best work ever, so I expected it to be good, and it was twice as listenable, in beats and lyrics, as I expected. But still I was underwhelmed, because I could play this album in the background and not even think I was listening to one of the best hip-hop albums ever.

To explain why this album is "underwhelming" but still great, we have to look at some of the other hip-hop greats that came either before or after. Run-DMC became famous for a shouting, rock and roll attack. KRS-One had two revolutionary first albums, first for his grit, and second for his conscious lyrics. Public Enemy took people's attention with a sonic assault and with political rhetoric in and out of their music. NWA and their offshoot projects set trends for violence and also for being from California. The Wu-Tang Clan were recognizable for their unique production and dense esoteric references. Eminem was the first great lyricist who articulated white underclass frustration while writing great pop songs. There are many other examples of rap explosions where an artist staked out dramatically new turf.

And Nas, on this album, did none of these. Nas' production, while artistically great, was not revolutionary or unusual. He doesn't make any great political manifestos. His lyrics, while violent, were hardly shocking for 1994. Nas is a lyricist, but he doesn't use extreme lyrical convolution on this album. Nas also would later become famous for writing songs with a pop-style hook, but on this album, he doesn't put a lot of energy into writing great songs. His vocal presence is understated, almost low-key. As for his lineage, he comes from Queensbridge, which was certainly venerable, but because of that, nothing that people hadn't heard before.

On this short album, then, what we have is 40 minutes divided into 10 songs. The songs mostly deal with the subject of the street life, mixed with tales of MC bravado. They are told in an understated flow between hooks that are servicable but not always attention grabbing. All of this is done by a young man, one of many, who grew up hustling on the streets of Queens. This should be nothing we haven't heard before. And, in some ways, it is exactly what we heard before. It is possible to listen to this album in the background, and to just listen to Nas' voice as another soft jazz instrument. That is what I mean when I say this album is underwhelming.

And yet, at a certain point, one of the lyrics will pique your interest and you will want to hit rewind over and over again, listening to a track and try to guess what Nas is saying. Behind the quiet in Nas' voice, his urgency starts to sink in. Behind the seeming randomness of his lyrics, possible patterns start showing up. Behind the seemingy violence of his lyrics, morality starts to shine forth. The overall narrative structure of the album starts to pull together, but never in a way where you feel like a message is being shoved down your throat. For example, at the beginning of "The World is Yours", seemingly a song about money and Nas' own lyrical prowess, he opens with lines about "watching Gandhi until I'm charged". With that line in mind, the chorus of the song, about who the world belongs to starts to mean more than being a young man's sense of triumph. Many of the lyrics on the album start showing more and more consciousness the more it is listened to.

In the end though, I can't quite put my finger on what is so great about this album. Many other artists have lyrics that keep opening up under examination, and many of those lyrics are on the surface more complicated than what Nas wrote. There is something spiritual in the quality of Nas' voice, that indeed does make this album something greater than a teenager's stories of ego and strife.

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