Release Date: April 1994
Producers: DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., & Q-Tip, with Nas
“It’s only right that I was born to use mics
And the stuff that I write is even tougher than dykes
I’m taking rappers to a new plateau through rap slow
My rhyming is a vitamin held without a capsule
The smooth criminal on beat breaks
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes
The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps
That’s where I learned to do my hustle, had to scuffle with freaks
I’m an addict for sneakers, 20’s of buddha and bitches with beepers
In the streets I could greet ya, about blunts I’ll teach ya
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep cuz sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind ”
- from “N.Y. State Of Mind”
In the era of modern music, from the early 1950’s, when the Blues and Country got married and had a kid named Rock & Roll, all the way up to now, there are very few instances where a major artist was announced to the world with just one line, one lyric. Bob Dylan had “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”, I guess, and The Beatles had “She loves you! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” but they weren’t the only things that contributed to their ascension into the public eye. I’m actually hard pressed to come up with an artist other than Nasir Jones that vaulted to recognition from one lyric. When he first appeared, as Nasty Nas, on the classic posse cut “Live At The BBQ” by Main Source, he uttered one line that immediately made him the most talked-about man in Hip-Hop:
When I was twelve, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus.
A star was born…sort of. The 18-year old from the Queensbridge projects was to eventually be anointed the music’s messiah, New York’s savior from the clutches of the Dr. Dre G-Funk era, and the long prayed for lyrical successor to the great Rakim, but knowing how fickle the music business is, it’s amazing that the world waited for Nas. “Live At The BBQ” was released in 1991, and Nas’s debut album Illmatic wasn’t released until April of 1994. That’s a long time in the lab for a young artist with precious buzz. But first, the record companies had to find him; it’s not like now, with the internet and all that. Nas kicked around for almost a year, ignored by most of the suits because his hyper-literate style, reminiscent of the aforementioned Rakim, as well as Big Daddy Kane, and especially Kool G Rap, had fallen out of the spotlight in favor of the melodious flows of MC’s as different as Q-Tip and Snoop Doggy Dogg, or even the tongue-twisting of acts like Das EFX and Fu-Schnickens. MC Serch from the recently disbanded 3rd Base found Nas hungry for a record deal, and having loved the Main Source track, set up an appearance for him on the Zebrahead soundtrack (which yielded the great “Halftime”), and put Nas on the first single from his new solo album. More importantly though, Serch connected the dots from Columbia Records’ Faith Newman to Nas, and work on Illmatic began. Most times you see situations like this get messy and record companies rush the product out, but not with Nas, probably because the people around him heard an artist of longevity, a street thug with the brain of a scholar. With the assembly of one of the greatest production rosters in Hip-Hop history, including Main Source’s Large Professor, as well as Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip – the best producers in New York at the time – Nas crafted a debut among the finest records of all time; before Illmatic, most Hip-Hop albums were produced by one producer or one team, but since this album’s release, with rappers seeing the great effect of the varied production roster, it’s been common practice in the business to hire the hottest guys behind the boards. If you take nothing else from this album, take that, the fact that Illmatic changed the entire way Hip-Hop operated creatively, a whole new interchange between MC's and the tracks they rhymed over.
By the time he was 21-years old, when Illmatic was released, Nas had been subsisting for three years on an unprecedented anticipation in the streets of New York, but the rumor and the real thing were very different; the album dropped like an atomic bomb on Hip-Hop, exceeding everyone’s expectations and served as one of the key albums to return the Rap spotlight to its birthplace in the five boroughs. One could imagine that Nas’s sharp mind formulated the aural assault of Illmatic as the rebirth of Hip-Hop, evident in the old school backdrop on the album’s introduction, “The Genesis”. The track begins with 3 sounds: a sample from the classic Old School Hip-Hop document, the 1982 film Wild Style, the unmistakable sound of a New York City subway train passing on an elevated track, and Nas’s verse from “Live At The BBQ”, which is cut off right before it reaches that ultimate line as if Nas knew it was time to not rest on his laurels and move past his artistic birth to the next level. The ear of an uninitiated passer-by would judge Nas as just another ghetto youth standing on a corner, acting wild with his boys, rolling a Dutch, running from cops, et cetera, et cetera; you all know the stereotypes. The reality however was that Nas was the real deal, an urban philosopher with his mind shaped, as he would allude to a decade later on “Bridging The Gap”, from pouring over book after book of non-curricular reading, devouring [Malcolm] “X and stuff”. Nas was incredibly self-educated, dropping out of school in the ninth grade (“The school drop-out, never liked that shit from day one”) – and what does it say for the NYC education system that the two MC’s with the greatest mastery of the English language in the 1990’s, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., were both high school dropouts? Furthermore, while Wu-Tang was on about kung-fu flicks, and countless rappers, Nas included, have elevated Scarface’s Tony Montana in the thirteen years since, Nas is the only MC to ever brag that he’s watching Gandhi while writing rhymes. It seems tragic that the trappings of fame and wealth tripped him up artistically for a handful of years, because at his best he seems to be operating on that higher mental level that 2Pac floated on, where the street thug appearance was a façade to help get through to you. Even now, his verse on “Success”, from Jay-Z’s American Gangster is light years beyond…well, you choose a name.
After the introduction, Illmatic kicks into gear with one of the great, epic narratives in the music’s history, a vivid crime yarn that twists and turns with the best films of the genre. Like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”, Nas’s “N.Y. State Of Mind” was never a commercial single but still managed to climb to its rightful perch as his signature statement, a song so emotionally deep and musically chilling that it will endure for decades to come. Over a creeping piano bassline chopped by DJ Premier, the lyrics read like classic poetry, packed with immortal project slang and internal rhyming that make the words ring out loud. The song has produced at least a dozen quotable lines that have been cherry picked by other MC’s since the album’s release, and just as many that are haven’t been but are equally incredible; it opens…
Rappers, I’ll monkey-flip ‘em with the funky rhythm / I be kickin’, musician inflicting composition / of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffing cocaine / Holding an M-16, see with a pen I’m extreme / Now, bullet holes left in my peepholes, I’m suited up with street clothes / Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes
Nas sets the stage like Scorcese, leaving no detail unexplored, famously running “like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin”, making a Mack 10 ‘spit’ until it jams, making sure to warn you that there are “three bullets caught up in the chamber”. The song, like the rest of Illmatic, isn’t a straight-up glorification of crime though, with a large portion of the words delivered with a tone of regret, bemoaning the corruption of the “younger niggas pulling the triggers, bringing fame to their name”, and the local snitches keeping “large niggas erasing and their wives ‘basing”. He brilliantly begins the second verse by illustrating his dreams of being the Hollywood image of a Gangsta, “drinking Moets, holding Techs”, getting in “gun-fights with mega cops”, before returning to his grim reality that he’s “just a nigga walking with his finger on the trigger”. Beyond the storytelling, the song serves to introduce the listener to Nas’s unique brand of introspection, one that is equal parts wishful Hip-Hop braggadocio and lucid observations on both personal and ghetto paranoia and the lives of black inner city youth, fearing his own contradictory nature by noting that “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane / Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain”. It’s this conscious sense of right and wrong that sets Nas apart from the pack of Gangsta rappers in the early 90’s; Nas acknowledged the consequences of the criminal, and specifically gang lifestyles, and still managed to foster some hope for his world.
Also produced Premier, the breezy “Memory Lane” and the hard-knocking “Represent” both explain further not just the ghettos that Nas is representing – “My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses, live amongst no roses” – but also who he is – “The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator / The type of nigga who be pissing in your elevator” – and the daily dangers he faces – “Any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble” – delivered with unparalleled vocabulary. Both tracks rank among both Nas and Primo’s best, which is saying something considering their long and storied careers. Even more sobering is the soaring “One Love”, produced with bite and laced with marimba by Q-Tip. Nas writes the first two verses as letters to homies in prison, trying to help his friends’ time pass quicker by speaking on the bleak happenings and block gossip that his friends are missing out on, from “You know you got a son / I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?” to “Guess who got shot in the dome-piece? Jerome's niece, on her way home from Jones Beach”. Nas pulls constantly at the contradictions of ghetto life, offering a hollow encouragement when he raps, “So stay civilized, time flies / though incarcerated, your mind dies / I hate it when your moms cries / It kinda makes me want to murder”; he spends the entire album proving that he’s more intelligent that pretty much any other MC you’ve heard before, but still he doesn’t see that there’s something wrong when you position your narrator toying with the thought of committing murder one while trying to pen an uplifting letter to a jailed buddy. The moral contortions are fascinating. He calms, and returns for a show-stopping third verse concerning some of his disillusion with the corner life while also being as much of a level-headed role model as he can be to his younger peers:
Sometimes I sit back with a buddha sack / Mind'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’ L's while I'm sleeping / A two-day stay, you may say I need the time alone / To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home / You see the streets have me stressed something terrible / Fuckin’ with the corners have a nigga up in Bellevue / Or H.D.M., hit with numbers from eight to ten / A future in a maximum state pen is grim / So I comes back home, nobody's out but Shorty Doo-Wop / Rollin’ two phillies together, in the ‘Bridge we called 'em oowops / He said, ‘Nas, niggaz could be bustin' off the roof / So I wear a bullet-proof and pack a black tres-deuce’ / He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep / Started coughing, one eye peeked to watch me speak / I sat back like the mack, my army suit was black / We was chillin' on these bitches where he pumped his loose cracks / I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard / Keeps me blasted, and he starts talking mad shit / I had to school him, told him don't let niggaz fool him / Cuz when the pistol blows, the one that's murdered be the cool one / Tough luck when niggaz are struck, families fucked up / Could've caught your man, but didn't look when you bucked up / Mistakes happen, so take heed never bust up / At the crowd, catch him solo, make the right man bleed / Shorty's laugh was cold-blooded as he spoke so foul / Only twelve, trying to tell me that he liked my style / Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes / Then froze, only to blow the herb smoke through my nose / And told my little man that I'm-a go Cypro’s / There's some jewels in the skull that he can sell if he chose / Words of wisdom from Nas, try to rise up above / Keep an eye out for jake, Shorty-Wop / One love.
That being said, Illmatic is not like a U2 record talking about problems in Africa. It’s a Hip-Hop album, and Nas, and the Queensbridge projects he hailed from, were no different than the sources for the couple dozen Rap classics that came before it. In Hip-Hop, you boast that you are the best. That’s what you do, and Nas was an expert, brilliantly blurring the lines between his chest beating and his urban meta-fiction; the result is an album where each song feels like a day in the life of Nas. No where is this better illustrated than on the three tracks produced by Large Professor, the man that put him on in the first place. The brassy “Halftime”, Nas’s solo debut single is included here, with booming Jeep-rattling bass intact. Even in the beginning, his one-liners were killers, from “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer / That’s like Malcolm X catching the jungle fever” to “I wear chains that excite the Feds” to “I’m as ill as a convict who kills for phone time”. The slow roll of “One Time 4 Your Mind” continues the usual boasting – sexing the honeys, slaying park jams, smoking eleven joints – but Nas also notes that while “starving makes you wanna do crime”, he refrains cuz “crime couldn’t beat a rhyme”; his most simple, but also perhaps most profound claim is that he “represents the thinker”. And if that’s true, which I think is confirmed after all these years, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, full of verbal gymnastics, is the glorious closing number, Nas’s words exploding like fireworks over a mutated Michael Jackson beat. The verses are short and punchy, but crammed with as many possible internal rhymes and creative pronunciations as can be – “Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L / School a fool well, you feel it like Braille / It ain't hard to tell / I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill / Vocabulary spills, I'm ill” – each line like gems encrusted on his lyricist’s crown.
The teetering balance of Hip-Hop’s materialism and boasts, and the worried mind on “the problems of the world today” of someone wise past his years is what fuels Nas throughout, and “Life’s A Bitch”, produced by L.E.S., and “The World Is Yours”, produced by Pete Rock, both dig deeper into the dilemmas that spring from that see-saw. Nas traverses all the dark corners of the ghetto that you’d expect – “the understandable smooth shit that murderers move with” – but, as he begins his verse on “Life’s A Bitch” by waking up on his twentieth birthday, the “essence of adolescence” leaving his body, you observe that, whether true or not, the tales of Illmatic were written by a teenager, from the perspective of a teenager, an astonishing reality to be challenged with, even as Nas fashions his first person narratives with oral dexterity. Where Rakim had once talked about being a stick-up kid in “Paid In Full”, Nas reprises that legend, reminiscing on when he was “robbing foreigners, taking wallets, their jewels and rip their green cards, dip to the projects, flashing my quick cash”, but again he returns to the conflict of the lifestyle. As ghetto fabulous as “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” makes it sound, he presents the dichotomy that “niggas I used to run with is rich or doing years in the hundreds”; to him, it’s horribly simple – either you succeed and money equals success, or you fail, and failure is incarceration or death. Even AZ, the only guest MC on the album, raps brilliantly that “even though we know somehow we all gotta go, but as long as we’re leaving thieving we’ll be leaving with some kind of dough”, presenting the inherent defeatism that was “dwelling in the Rotten Apple”, springing from the gritty New York Hip-Hop of this new era; as Dre and Snoop had made drugs and gang violence hip and glamorous, Nas, along with the Wu-Tang, and a year later Mobb Deep, weren’t sugarcoating their barred-window environments. In all the cold realism though, Nas always manages to squeeze in options, ways out, which is how you know he was a little more cognizant than the rest of the pack. He raps, “I switched my motto, instead of saying ‘Fuck tomorrow’, that buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.” That’s the kind of self-realization that was not in abundance in the Hip-Hop of the early 90’s, pure hope laid simple and plain, and even though self-confidence is an essential element to success in the Hip-Hop game, you as a listener could start to grasp that Nas not only knew he was the shit, but more significantly he hoped if “in his book of rhymes, all the words pass the margins”, his talent might be good enough to get him out of the PJ’s in the end. “The World Is Yours” theorizes that the struggle of this project world is that life here can award you enough positive skill and development to escape…and yet home is still home.
Illmatic is one of those singular statements, a massive representation of an artist not only at his peak, but also hitting at the right time, a zeitgeist defining work – at least from a Hip-Hop standpoint – and benefiting from being mostly uncorrupted by the pressures of the record business grind. This album is Hip-Hop in the mid 90’s, representing that gritty moment from the late 1993 emergence of Wu-Tang through to the surprising ultra-glam of “Hypnotize” in early 1997 and Biggie’s subsequent murder. And despite the fact that Illmatic is not the highest Hip-Hop album on this list, I would say that if you own only one Hip-Hop album in your lifetime, make it this album. If you’re asking why, I would say because in order to break through the cacophony of modern media, you need immediacy, a lack of excess. Besides being packed with nothing but classic tracks, running in a sequence as powerful as classic plates from Highway 61 Revisited to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, Illmatic is extra lean, and the more fatty excess you excise, the closer you come to perfection. The reason then, my friends, is because Illmatic is a pretty much the perfect Hip-Hop album, featuring some of the most sublime lyrical imagery of the 20th century. And the world would’ve never heard it without that one line. Damn.
01. “The Genesis” [interlude]
02. “N.Y. State Of Mind”
03. “Life’s A Bitch” [feat. AZ & Olu Dara]
04. “The World Is Yours”
06. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”
07. “One Love”
08. “One Time 4 Your Mind”
10. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”
"N.Y. State Of Mind" [audio]
"The World Is Yours" [video]
"One Love" [video]
"It Ain't Hard To Tell" [video]
- BONUS: "The Genesis" [audio]
- BONUS: "Life's A Bitch" [audio]
- BONUS: "The World Is Yours" [remix video]
I actually feel that this version is better. The video definitely fits the song more; it's also part one of the "One Love" video.
- BONUS: "Halftime" [video]
- BONUS: "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" [audio]
- BONUS: "One Time 4 Your Mind" [audio]
- BONUS: "Represent" [audio]