Review: Nas - Illmatic

A powerful piece of poetry from end to end.

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Adaso, Henry. "Review: Nas - Illmatic." ThoughtCo, Apr. 20, 2016, Adaso, Henry. (2016, April 20). Review: Nas - Illmatic. Retrieved from Adaso, Henry. "Review: Nas - Illmatic." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 24, 2017).
Nas - Illmatic
Nas - Illmatic. © Columbia

Illmatic is the product of a world filled with crushed dreams. In this world, you either wilt under the nightmare or you punch your way through the darkness. Nas did the latter. 

As an inner-city youth surrounded by crime and poverty, Nas ponders desperation and hope in equal measure. Two decades deep, Illmatic is still the ultimate blueprint for gritty street rhymers and boom bap disciples alike.

Released just five months before Nas' 21st birthday, Illmatic established him as a fully formed savant.

He rained metaphors, griped about the bleak options in front of him and dreamed of a less dangerous future.

The harsh realities depicted on Illmatic are not always Nas'. "One Love," for example, is a letter to an incarcerated friend. "NY State of Mind" is a survey of the street corners where "stick-up kids run up on us" in broad daylight and "crews without guns are goners." He opens "Memory Lane" with a nod to his target audience: "listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners, Hennessey holders and old school ni--as."

Queens is a constant backdrop on Illmatic. The maw of the city vows to engulf the characters in Nas' stories. In the place where streets are "jet-black," the quest for survival and the pervasive paranoia make up one starless cloud that hovers over the Bridge. Rhymes and "buddha sacks" are the only narrow beams in these dark alleyways.

Illmatic isn't all crime and criminals.

There are pockets of sunlight. Even on the album's bleakest song, Nas finds a ray of hope. "I switched my motto—instead of sayin' f-ck tomorrow/That buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto," Nas rhymes on "Life's a Bitch." He even finds space to brag about his superior mic skills on album coda, "It Ain't Hard to Tell," which was deemed a crossover song at the time.

How the times have changed?

Nas' belief that taking a different path might help another soul (if not the narrator) see a better tomorrow is what makes Illmatic an enduring piece. Hope is a universal aspiration. 

Of course, no discussion of Illmatic is complete without acknowledging the pivotal production cast. It dropped at a time when most rappers had in-house producers and DJs to help them fashion a cohesive sound. Guru had DJ Premier. Big Daddy Kane had Marley Marl. Ice Cube had The Bomb Squad. CL Smooth had Pete Rock. Illmatic dared to be different—it rounded up the best producers of the era.

Illmatic was the first major rap album to embrace the concept of enlisting multiple producers on the same album, thanks to an All-Star lineup of Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor and L.E.S.

For an album with many cooks in the kitchen, Illmatic is remarkably concise and focused. Despite the diversity of the co-stars, a theme emerges. It's called "Let's see who can weave a haunting loop into a groove the best." Everyone passes the test. SP-1200 samples, raw breaks, and pillowy jazz-rap fusion undercut the belly of Nas' raw rhymes.

There's something magnetic about Nas' conversational flow.

He's faithful to the beat but unwilling to marry it.

The best lines on Illmatic are so memorable that they've become an integral part of hip-hop linguistics: "Life's a b-tch and then you die; The world is yours; I'm out for Presidents to represent me; I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death."

Before you know it, 39 minutes have flown by and you're left hitting the rewind button again and again. Nas' ability to vividly depict the nihilism of youth, the idealism of redemption, and the audacity of hope makes Illmatic the greatest rap album of all time.

Illmatic is a powerful piece of poetry from end to end—the work of a prodigious genius ahead of his time.