Welcome to Musical Appreciation. Nas. Nothing else needs to be said but Nas. He’s one of those rappers you think of when thinking the G.O.A.T. in hip-hop. In terms of lyricism, Nas is a beast unlike any other with introspective street raps and a complex rapping style which rivals that of Rakim. While he isn’t as big of a celebrity as someone like Jay Z, Nas is an emcee who many lyricists aspire to be and who is the embodiment of hip-hop. Today’s Musical Appreciation is Nas’ debut album that pretty much changed hip-hop forever. This is Illmatic.
- The Genesis: We begin with The Genesis, an intro that lets you know what you’re getting into. There’s sounds of subway trains, various conversations, and even some music playing. It’s like being transported to New York in the 90s, more specifically, Nas’ origin.
- N.Y. State Of Mind: Now for one of my favorite songs from Nas, N.Y. State Of Mind. With production blessed by the legendary DJ Premier, Nas spits two verses about the crime-ridden neighborhoods of New York, mainly his native Queensbridge. His attention to detail and the imagery his lyrics conjure up really shine in this song. If there’s any song that represents the New York sound of the time, it would be this.
- Life’s A Bitch ft AZ: We transition to the more somber Life’s A Bitch, where Nas and then-upcoming rapper AZ, reflect on their lives and are grateful to be alive in spite of living in an area of poverty and crime. AZ shines the most with a more complex verse showing that life is short, so the best thing one can do is leave some sort of legacy before you die. Nas’ verse is more hopeful where he shows his appreciation for making it to be 20 and not have to live the street life anymore. The beat is amazing here, it’s more chill and relaxed with its sample of The Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love, plus, a trumpet solo courtesy of Nas’ father Olu Dara at the end.
- The World Is Yours: Next up, we have The World Is Yours, produced by Pete Rock and inspired by Scarface (like a majority of hip-hop) Here, Nas lets us know that you can achieve success and have the world in your hands regardless of where you came from, a message that can inspire young black kids from the hood. This is Started From The Bottom done right.
- Halftime: While most of Illmatic has a slower tempo to create a dark atmosphere, Halftime is a more upbeat track in the middle of the album. Nas flexes more of his lyrical skills, rapping about how ill he is on the mic. Fun fact: this is one of the earliest songs that Nas has ever recorded, being released 2 years before Illmatic. That’s amazing how this song is older than everything else in this album and it still fits.
- Memory Lane (Sitting In Da Park): In Memory Lane (Sitting In Da Park), Nas reminisces on the days when he was dealing drugs on the streets, witnessing drug deals, shootings, people getting drunk and high, etc., reminding people of how much he went through before turning 20 and feeling much older than he is. Add in a DJ Premier beat and you’ve got yourself another great song from Nas.
- One Love: One of Nas’ greatest strengths as an emcee is storytelling and One Love shows why. In this song, Nas write a couple of letters to his homies who are incarcerated, catching up on old times and keeping them up to date about what’s currently going on in the hood while they’re locked up. All of this is backed by jazzy production from Q-Tip (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tribe Called Quest album).
- One Time 4 Ya Mind: One Time 4 Ya Mind is a more laidback track on the album and it follows the same path as N.Y. State Of Mind. Nas displays his versatility as an emcee who can rap over various production styles without sacrificing his lyricism, coming after you with each hard-hitting bar.
- Represent: The next, Represent, is one of the more underrated songs off this album. Just like NY State Of Mind, Represent is also produced by DJ Premier, who laces the track with more of that grimy boom bap sound while Nas raps about Queensbridge and all of the shady activities that go around from people getting high to shootouts.
- It Ain’t Hard To Tell: We conclude this album with It Ain’t Hard To Tell, which samples one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs, Human Nature, and Nas rapping about how great of an emcee he is, which is backed up plenty by the impeccable flow and lyrics, so you can’t say he’s lying. It’s a good way to close out the record.
And that was Illmatic, not just one of the greatest hip-hop debuts of all time, but one of the best hip-hop albums of all time period. I don’t think I’ve done this album enough justice in this review since nearly everyone has talked about it. In a time when the West Coast was dominating, albums like this, plus Ready To Die, Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers), etc., made everyone know that the East have something to say. Illmatic perfectly encapsulates New York in the 90s well. The lyricism is dark and gritty to reflect inner city life and the beats fit this mold, all crafted by the most in-demand New York producers of the time. With 10 tracks and under 40 minutes long, it’s pretty short for a hip-hop album, which is good because it gets the job done better than some albums that have like 20 tracks and are about an hour or more long. Illmatic is an important landmark of hip-hop that still holds up today and will live on forever when most albums fade into obscurity.
So that was Musical Appreciation. Next time, we’ll talk about September.
SONGS OF THE WEEK
Life’s A Bitch-Nas ft AZ
Icky Thump-The White Stripes
I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing-Aerosmith
I Will Love You Again-Lara Fabian