Illmatic: Revisiting one of Hip-Hop’s Greatest Records on Nas’s Birthday

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Today, September 14th, 2015, is Nasir Jones’s 42nd birthday. Born in Crown Heights in 1972, Jones would later become Nas, one of the most eloquent rappers of all time and a man who’s now revered as an elder sage and founding father of modern hip-hop. Nas’s nascent ability, most famously honed on 1994’s Illmatic when he was just twenty years old, was incredibly good, paralleled only by other MCs who’ve since become luminaries, moguls, or deceased legends. When Illmatic was released, Nas was only 22, but he was already offering grim yet inspiring maxims on suffering, systemic oppression, and the ever-present dangers of succumbing to a life of violence. No fan of hip-hop is unaware of Illmatic‘s place as a profoundly important record. So on Nas’s 42nd birthday, let’s revisit it in all of its provocative, lucid glory, track by track. 

1) The Genesis: The sounds of trains whooshing by on overhead tracks meld with overdubbed sound bytes from a gangster movie. A drum machine starts. Dialogue between Nas and a few others ensues about the trite state of the rap game. It’s due for a takeover. Luckily for everyone involved, this is the intro to a record that indeed changed the face of modern rap.

2) NY State of Mind: Nothing has been as indelible as the first few bars of “NY State of Mind.” The beat of a walking piano, baritone and unchanged throughout the entire song, gives Nas’s raps a really sinister quality. Plus, the fact that he’s rapping about daily survival in an urban environment more akin to a dystopian nightmare than anything else (“the city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps”), gives one the sense that Nas is himself a villain, fully enmeshed in the harsh world that birthed his lyrics. He raps about his interests in materialism, substance abuse and exudes a normalized sexism (“I’ma addict for sneakers, twenties of Buddha and bitches with beepers”). It’s undeniably catchy and super visceral, because it completely grants one permission to enter Nas’s mind, which at twenty years old was much wiser and experienced than most of his contemporaries.

3) Life’s a Bitch: Just as we’re thrust into the treacherous world of street crime and gang warfare at the record’s outset, Illmatic’s third track seems like it might champion a give-no-fucks attitude above all else. “Life’s a bitch, then you die,” is something everybody has heard everyone they know say at least 100 times, but it’s pretty palpable coming from Nas and rapper AZ, who spits the song’s first verse. Nas’s tone is one of thankfulness here, as he blesses the fact that he’s made it to age twenty unscathed (“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”). The beat sparks a vibrant feel. No longer are we in Nas’s dreary “NY State of Mind” but in an mindset profuse with feelings of possibility and optimism.

4) The World is Yours: In this one, Nas seeks to spread the love to his community far and wide, casting a net from the five boroughs all the way to the White House, saying “I’m out for presidents to represent me.” He strikes an empowered chord here, in a call-and-response that’s pretty powerful in its simplicity. “Whose world is this?”, Nas asks, only to repeatedly answer his own question, in a way of verifying his need for vindication among so many obstacles: “it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine,” he says boldly. This song is undeniably catchy, and it’s been used as fodder for other rappers, from Blu and Exile to Jay-Z.

5) Halftime: Every record needs a banger, and Nas was able to emphatically segue Illmatic at the midway point with some raw lyrics that demonstrate his unhinged rapping ability. The beat is funky–it’s got a swaggering bassline and some horns blaring throughout–but at the center is Nas, spitting badass rhymes that are still hard to match in their pace and fluidity 21 years later. It’s raw and gritty, and the thumping drums hawk a rhythm that should induce head-nods. The lyrics are utterly earth-shattering, and are an indication of the Nas as a formidable MC:

It’s like that, you know it’s like that
I got it hemmed, now you never get the mic back
When I attack, there ain’t an army that could strike back
So I react never calmly on a hype track
I set it off with my own rhyme
Cause I’m as ill as a convict who kills for phone time
I’m max like cassettes, I flex like sex
in your stereo sets, Nas will catch wreck

6) Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park): Everybody loves nostalgia, even Nas! As the chorus literally makes you take “a trip down memory lane,” we’re given in a window into just how much life Nas has lived in his twenty-years on earth. “I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block, I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat,” he raps. This song is mostly about Nas’s young friends who perished too soon and the inevitable reflection he’s forced to assume in their memories. This time he sits on on a park bench as ever more humanity passes him by. It’s a salient and honest song, and it is part of the reason why Illmatic is a classic.

7) One Love: Just as “Memory Lane,” pays homage to Nas’s friends lost to street violence, the lyrics of “One Love” are composed of a series of letters Nas wrote to friends in prison. “What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid, when the cops came you should of slid to my crib,” he writes. This track, produced by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, is one of the more musically diverse songs on the record. The beat uses samples from a thumb piano called an mbira, and various sound clips from the Heath Brothers and Parliament.

8) One Time 4 Your Mind: Kind of like “Halftime,” this song is one the less introspective and thematic tunes on the record, and hinges more on chilled out vibes in comparison with many other tracks. Nas enlightens us as to how he kicks back with this track, complete with his affinity for weed and villainous movie characters: When I’m chilling, I grab the Buddha, get my crew to buy beers, and watch a flick, ill and root for the villain.” His tone is carefree and the beat is loose and mild, allowing the listener to hone in on the rapper’s slyness, shown here in a pretty effortless way.

9) Represent: Zeroing in on the turbulent life of poverty NYC, “Represent,” harps on many of the same tropes that “NY State of Mind” gets at, but is more brash, uptempo and aggressive. We’re not given a window into Nas’s mind so much as a quick field trip to the neighborhoods that we dwells in. He’s defiant and nasty in this one, saying things like “Yo, they call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella, Moet drinkin’, marijuana smokin’ street dweller.” Even though this record consistently hammers home similar themes, never does the bleak and dangerous imagery get repetitive, tired or boring.

10) It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Nas left some of the most potent lyrics to the very last track of his record, exacting really sharp language that’s as penetrating as it is personally empowering. He calls himself “half-man, half-amazing,” and in effect, turns into a superhero and the kind of figure his community needs. This is one of the more memorable beats of the record, and his lyrics are just as unsheltered: My poetry’s deep, I never fell, Nas’s raps should be locked in a cell, it ain’t hard to tell.”

 

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 

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