Rating: 10 / 10
In 1994, the old school was fading fast, every gangsta under the Cali sun was cruising into megastardom, and the new school style of East Coast lyricism was beginning to bloom. No other album bridged the gap between the new and old schools quite like “Illmatic” by Nas, an album so monumental its title is now a commonly used word in the hip hop lexicon.
This no-frills 10-track LP showcases a person holding wisdom far beyond his years, whose reaction to a harsh ghetto environment is to look out with a cool perspective and an open mind, whose lyrics convey perfectly the community focused aura and uncrushable optimism of the projects.
‘ NY State Of Mind’ is the opening cut, and it’s all there. DJ Premier’s clean, menacing rhythm and crisp piano loop. The exquisite rhymes – “Inhale deep like the words of my breath, I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death, I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times, nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind.” A moment to savour is before Nas sets the whole thing going with his first verse, when he mutters “I don’t know how to start this shit.” It’s like he knows…
The aura of ‘NY State Of Mind’, the straight reflection of the NY street mentality onto a rhyme book, is echoed repeatedly throughout the album. The way in which Nas drops invaluable knowledge while discreetly observing the goings on of the ghetto is masterful. ‘The World Is Yours’ revitalises with its upbeat rhymes and cool Pete Rock production, ‘Memory Lane’ soothes with its slum philosophy, and ‘Represent’ mirrors the energetic, happy aspects of NY with its head-nodding Primo beat.
Of course, nothing was a more significant symbol of the old school than a simple step up to the mic to spit for the fuck of it. Nas acknowledges this to the fullest, the majority of tracks here are just straight, raw, unadulterated urban street flows. The term “street flow” has been stamped on many poor raps since the dawn of time, but never before has the whole idea been done quite as well as on this album. These rhymes, straight out a QB street corner cypher, form the basis of ‘Halftime’, ‘One Time For Your Mind’, and the classic single ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’. Both ‘Halftime’ and ‘One Time For Your Mind’ are wonderful, and demonstrate the extent to which Nas could hold it down and destroy any cat on the mic back in his heyday. But ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ is something special. The Large Professor (a very dope producer who sadly hasn’t achieved as much fame as his “Illmatic” counterparts Pete Rock, Q-Tip and Premier) creatively samples Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ with devastating effect, creating a track backdrop which stays raw, ill and powerful whilst maintaining a dignified, chilled approach. Nas blesses the track with some of his finest ever lyrics…
“Hit the Earth like a comet invasion,
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man half-amazin,
C ause in my physical, I can express through song,
D elete stress like Motrin then extend strong,
I drank Moet with Medusa and give her shotguns in hell,
F rom the spliff that I lift and inhale, it ain’t hard to tell.”
These fun, upbeat battle tracks are the epitome of dopeness, but they don’t overshadow the album’s two crown jewels. ‘Life’s A Bitch’ and ‘One Love’. These two tracks, singularly and together as a part of the album, symbolise perfectly the attitude, hope and optimism of the NY hood. ‘Life’s A Bitch’ is by a hair’s breadth the better of the two. Featuring the only proper guest appearance, by AZ The Visualiza, it’s a timeless classic. It goes straight from the brief intro into one of the finest verses, in my opinion, of all time. With no warning, AZ bursts into action, spits a tremendous stream of words and redefines the concept of flow, as the lyrics rush over the beat distributing knowledge on a par with anything you’ll ever hear. It’s just so, so good.
“Visualizin the realism of life and actuality, f
Fuck who’s the baddest a person’s status depends on salary,
A nd my mentality is money orientated,
I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it…
Keepin’ the schwepervesence street ghetto essence inside us,
C ause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us”.
It needs to be heard to believed. And he doesn’t even manage to embarass Nas’s verse…
“I switched my motto — instead of sayin fuck tomorrow,
T hat buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto…
I woke up early on my born day, I’m twenty years of blessing,
The essence of adolescent leaves my body now I’m fresh in,
My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it,
One quarter through life some Godly like thing created”.
The two MCs are kept apart by AZ’s hook – “Life’s a bitch and then you die; that’s why we get high, cause you never know when you’re gonna go” – which says so much with so little. The Nas / LES production is simple but effective in the atmosphere it creates behind the vocals.
Nas’ lyrics on ‘One Love’ form the basis of a letter to one of his boys in rhyme form. The whole thing’s quotable, but some parts stand out.
“Sometimes I sit back with a buddha sack
M ind’s in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er
So I be ghost from my projects
I take my pen and pad for the week
and hittin nails while I’m sleepin
A two day stay, you may say I need the time alone
to relax my dome, no phone, left the 9 at home”
It’s melancholic without being hopeless, it’s optimistic while staying wise. The top drawer xylophone-laden Q-Tip production is very much like the entire album- blissfully simple, but yet sharp and potent.
Don’t wait for, or expect, Nas to make another LP which is anything like “Illmatic”, because he won’t. No one will.