Classics don’t come along too often and in 1994, a time when hip hop was buzzing with so much good music, Nas dropped Illmatic. Personally I’d been waiting on this album for a long time, maybe it was since hearing him on ‘Live at the BBQ’ or maybe it was ‘Halftime’ from the Zebrahead soundtrack, all I know was it was a long time coming. Finally in early 1994 ‘Ain’t hard to tell’ hit the radio and you knew he was on some next shit.
So what makes this album a classic?, its hard to pinpoint it, its not the production, its not the rhymes, its not even the choice of tracks, its ALL of them!. This album was created with hip-hop in mind period. I’ve never heard verses constructed so beautifully or with such complexity but untangle with analysis to reveal hidden depths and breathtaking truths. We all know you can come with the greatest verses but if the production behind those lines isn’t up to scratch it can make the lines sound dull. Nas picked the best producers of the time and era; he picked producers who are still here today. Pete Rock, LES, Q-Tip, DJ premier and Large Professor brought 9 of the best tracks to ever emerge in hip hop, Nas was still fresh and knew what he was doing.
After the short intro of ‘The genesis’, we are taken into the ‘NY State of Mind’ of Nas, a vivid depiction of the Environment that surrounds him. Convincingly he declares ‘I never sleep 'cause sleep is the cousin of death’ over a dark piano heavy DJ premier track, the 2 combine like the perfect marriage of sound and lyricism but this is no fluke. ‘Represent’ is on the same sort of vibe as ‘NY state..’ but over a more upbeat backdrop Nas needs you to realize ‘Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/ get murdered on the humble/ guns will blast and niggaz tumble’. The best collaboration comes in the form of the throwback of ‘Memory Lane (sitting in the park)’ where Nas displays the cleverness of how he can put images in your head with line after line of hip hop quotables.
‘Lifes a Bitch’ was the last track recorded for the album and initially it seems out of place on the album but after you listen to the whole thing you understand its reason for inclusion. Nas is joined by newcomer AZ, an as then unsigned artist who just happened to be in the studio at the time. This is the only collaboration on the album and you would hardly notice as Nas carries this album in true solo form. The 2 emcees drop verses that may seem pessimistic but they tell you why instead of just moaning on and on about the hardship of life.
‘The world is yours’ shows theres not all doom and gloom in the mind of this Queensbridge Native. This is a more optimistic look at life from Nas’s viewpoint where you can go for yours, he shows you that there is an option without being preachy. Pete Rock supplies a great beat and even sings the hook terribly but so bad its good if you know what I mean. ‘One Love’ is Nas’s dedication to everyone he knows that’s been incarcerated, he brings a message of hope over a Q-tip laced Xylophone creation. He doesn’t just write about the situation as if he’s in it, he writes as if he’s looking from the outside in the form of a letter to his friend upstate. He lets him know whats going on and whats gonna happen when he gets out, ultimately this piece of work cannot be touched.
It’s without a doubt that Nas and Large Professor have chemistry when they work together, after all it was Extra Paul who supplied the rawness to Nas first solo single ‘Halftime’. It's difficult to explain why it’s so good, maybe it’s the ruggedness of the beat but maybe it's this is Nasty Nas in full illmatic mode. Even the radio friendliness of ‘It ain’t hard to tell’ had that Extra P touch as Nas dropped 3 of the best verses ever heard in hip hop, the beat may have not been totally hardcore with that ‘Human Nature’ sample but it was hardly going to have your grandparents getting jiggy with it. ‘One time for your mind’ is the closing piece of evidence to why the 2 work so well together; do you really need me to tell you any more?
It would be impossible to pick any track out as the best or worst on this album as they stand together as an unbreakable chain of pure hip hop. Real Beats, Mind Blowin’ Rhymes and True Life. The word Perfection can now be replaced in the dictionary with ‘Illmatic’.