Hailed as a hip-hop masterpiece, Illmatic dropped as the debut album of Nas in 1994, exalting the Queensbridge-bred rapper as the first KONY (King of New York), elevating itself as the crowning jewel of rap recordings in the 1990’s, and establishing Illmatic as a classic album whose legacy remains definitive of the genre itself.
Born Nasir Jones in 1973, Nas’ lyrical content centers around his first-person narrative of the streets and boulevards surrounding Queensbridge, New York. Delivered with scholarly insight, Nas deconstructs his personal experiences with dark aesthetics that are used to accentuate the rough edges of his persona, a style that would later prove supreme amongst East Coast rappers. As Nas introduces his world to us, he proclaims “It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail”. Depicting the story of his struggle through the verses on Illmatic, he embodies the history of hip-hop itself, bearing the art of old-school emceeing and deejaying like its forefathers, and adding his own poetic consciousness with flawless delivery.
In the opening single titled “The Genesis”, for example, Nas laments over the lack of legitimacy among other MCs in the projects, adressing artistic credibility, and citing the depth of his hip-hop knowledge as rather extensive. The son of a jazz musician, Nas’ broad musical knowledge permeates throughout the album, which draws inspiration on everything from old-school hip hip, blues, to avant-garde jazz arrangements. Constructing the rich musical tapestry of Illmatic are its four major producers, (Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and DJ Premier), who all contribute to the grimy, yet melodic tone of the album.
Respectfully building upon the hip-hop tradition of Queens, Nas samples artists like Biz Markie and the Juice Crew All Stars, paying tribute to his borough’s lyrical forbearers, professing in “Memory Lane”:
I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners
Hennessey holders and old-school’n niggas,
My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology
Poetry, that’s a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
Reigning from the city of Queensbridge, Nas drops classic after classic on Illmatic, steadily gaining momentum as his tale embodies the spirit of living in the Queensbridge housing projects; his lyrics reflect a vision to rise above his trife reality, and to ascend beyond the buildings that encapsulate him. Nas’ own self-fulfilling prophecy “N.Y. State of Mind”, a self-fulfilling anthem that blew east-coast hip-hop off the hinges and revived what was once a dormant coast. Featuring jazzy piano samples and high-pitched guitar notes styled by DJ Premier, God’s son pulls no punches and delivers over forty bars of pure rap classics:
It’s only right that I was born to use mics…
The smooth criminal on beat breaks
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes
Inhale deep like the words
I don’t sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death
(Ugh!) Paired with Prem’s technique for dressing doomsday-like piano loops over hardbody beats, “N.Y. State of Mind” lit up the mentality of rap fans of all coasts with unparalleled precision, proving the prophecy that nothing is quite equivalent to a New York state of mind. As Nas preludes earlier in the album, he is, in fact “taking emcees to another plateau”, following up with another definitive classic titled “The World is Yours”. Though released almost twenty years ago, “The World is Yours” still resounds in the hearts and minds of young street scholars. As a masterfully crafted anthem that raised the stakes of the genre worldwide, hip-hop’s compass points seemingly shifted as Nas implored to open minds, “Whose world is this?”, opening with the verse:
I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi til I’m charged
Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin
To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement
Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with
Concluding with the phrase, “I’m out for president’s to represent me”, “The World is Yours” borrows the concept of its title from the movie Scarface, in which Tony Montana makes the phrase his motto after seeing it on a blimp in the sky. After hearing Nas’ prolific rendition, however, we promptly answer the posed question with a “It’s mine, it’s mine!”
In a 2009 interview with XXL, Nas revealed the purpose behind the album artwork of Illmatic, which features a photo of Nas at age 7 superimposed over a backdrop of a NYC city block, stating “Really the record had to represent everything Nasir Jones is about, from beginning to end.” Says Nas of the photo:
“That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That’s the year everything set off. That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours.”
Reporting live from Queensbridge, Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ leaves us with the lasting impression that, indeed, “The World is Ours”.
-Leslie Dizon (Aka Big L)