A Critical Retrospective on Illmatic
Coming Outta Queensbridge
by Owen Watson
Nas' seminal hip-hop album Illmatic turned twenty on April 19th. In those twenty years, the album received the exceedingly rare five-Mics review from The Source, inspired college classes, and assumed its perch as one of the best works in the hip-hop music canon. Let's set something straight: Illmatic is not just one of the best rap albums of all time. Illmatic is one of the best albums of all time. It is the rare masterstroke whose genius moves beyond the actual substance of the work, spawning a positive feedback loop of interpretation and appropriation.
Illmatic is very easy to listen to: accessible due to its length and composition, neither over- nor under-produced. For the casual listener unacquainted with the history of hip-hop, the album's easy lyrical flow and attractive backbeats are part of what makes the record commercially successful. However, for the more ethnographically inclined listener, the album represents a watershed moment in hip-hop history and development. Illmatic came at a time when East Coast rap was searching for a messiah; a face to rally around and meet the West Coast rap scene's success via Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
Not only for this reason, Illmatic begs to be dissected and analyzed, as it is a true masterpiece – socially, musically, and narratively. Transcending one artistic medium, the album spills outside its ten tracks to poeticize and novelize the portrait of a young man living amid poverty and violence, forcing the adept listener to cope with, and understand, the varied levels of the meta-narrative. The album isn't important simply by virtue of being a vital step in the development of a genre; taken out of the hip-hop frame, it retains immense artistic weight.
Identifying the album's influences is an important step in breaking down what makes it such a milestone. Musically, one of the most evocative characteristics of Illmatic is the similarity of much of Nas' phrasing to jazz solos. Nas isn't rapping on top of the music, but within it – his cadences share more with Gillespie, Parker, and Davis than his rap contemporaries. Sitting just behind the beat, anticipatory of the next drop, and deliberate in his use of space, Nas even gives a shoutout to the jazz pedigree of his craft halfway through the album:Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop straight off the blockThe reference to bop shouldn't be surprising given his father's (trumpeter Ola Daru) background as a blues and jazz musician, but the phrasing similarity between Nas' flow and those used in jazz should still be upheld as a triumph of the album's lyricism due to his age and the comparative level of his hip-hop peers. Illmatic is a musical masterpiece, not just because of the samples, production, and content of the lyrics; Nas understands rap is a musical instrument, not just a lyrical vessel. Also interesting to note about this particular couplet above is his reference to the overarching rap and street narrative (the "ancient manifested hip-hop"). In 1994, Nas was ready to emerge from the amalgam of underground East-Coast-rap greats such as Kool G Rap and Kurtis Blow he had drawn influence from, as well as act as the voice of street sages who had no greater reach than the Queensbridge projects.
Throughout the ten tracks on the album, that voice cuts and weaves through a variety of backbeats and accompaniments. A few in particular stand out as the best examples of Nas' powerful storytelling and lyricism.
"Halftime," Nas' solo debut single and Illmatic's fifth track, was originally recorded for the soundtrack of the 1992 race relations film Zebrahead. The motives for including "Halftime" on Illmatic were most likely both artistic and commercial; the track was simply too good, and too popular at the time to leave off the album. As "Halftime" was released two years before Illmatic, it acted as the long fuse for the album's explosion: the track's release spawned the Columbia record deal, as well as the hype that secured some of New York's finest beat makers for the 1994 debut. Large Professor (Main Source), who would originally invite Nas to guest on "Live at the Barbeque," acted as producer to create an up-tempo stage to the biographically braggadocio verses. Sonically and lyrically, the song is a coming-out-party, full of trumpets and background voices that create the atmosphere of a freestyle circle, with Nas stating, "I got it hemmed, now you never get the mic back." This is a head-on attack with Nas at his Nastiest, spitting the venom of his intellectual genesis story:Back in '83 I was an MC sparkin' But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and Kick my little raps cause I thought niggas wouldn't understand And now in every jam I'm the fuckin' man"Halftime" could easily kick off the album with its in-your-face introductory jabs and uppercuts. Instead, it serves as an upshift into the higher gear of the middle of the album, building on the strength of the early offerings.
The heart of the album is the sixth track, "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)," a retrospective of the rapper's young life in the projects. Bordering on breathless, Nas' delivery is slightly out of keeping with his more melodically cadenced and measured verses elsewhere on the album, but it only serves to add earnestness to the messages and reflections that carry the cut. Floating smoothly over the Hammond organ backing-track of a sample of Reuben Wilson's "We're in Love," he serves up verses that wonder about the real reason his contemporaries are entering the rap game, as well as reflecting on whether he'll be a victim or perpetrator of the violence he sees everyday:I rap divine, God, check the prognosis: is it real or showbiz? My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganjaThe track also showcases some of Nas' best internal rhyming and assonance on the album, which together forms his signature style and underlines how advanced his lyricism is.
"It Ain't Hard to Tell," another Large Professor production, was the second single on Illmatic and closes the album. It's a gritty offering, with a ghostly vocal backing track sampled from Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and long bass notes that underline the sax and synth hook. The whole production feels pushed through a lo-fi filter, as if an old phonograph is playing in a darkened corner of a New York subway station while Nas spits over top. Sharing some of the ego-centric content of "Halftime," "It Ain't Hard to Tell" feels like a statement of purpose for the future, reminding listeners of the ultimate power of Nas' raps while laying down some of the finest lyrical passages from the album. Mythological imagery on this track serves to elevate (or drop, in the following example) Nas to his place in the pantheon of rap:I drink Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns in hell From the spliff that I lift and inhale, it ain't hard to tellIn another, he contrasts his own immoral fables with those of Aesop:The buddha monk's in your trunk, turn the bass up Not stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot upFinally, on the last verse, Nas drops one of the best lines on the album, equating the depths of the biblical Leviathan's ocean with the complexity of his own language — forcing him to reimagine (or dull down on a second attempt) his storytelling to the listener:This rhythmatic explosion is what your frame of mind has chosen I'll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozen Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin End like Leviathan, it's deep, well let me try againThis mythology trope represents some of Nas' most advanced lyrical devices on Illmatic, moving him into his role as a rap intellectual. Beyond the substantive musical composition and production, the album has an ability to encapsulate a time and place, and not just the one Nas chooses to portray.
I was fifteen when I first heard Illmatic. My parents were splitting up, and that particular summer was hot and still. One night in July, as I hopped into the passenger seat of a run-down minivan while a cocktail of drugs brewed holes through my brain, I thought, fuck it. I don't know how I made it home, or what I did, or what I told my broken mother the next morning. What I do remember is a painting formed from a speedometer's neon streaks and the incandescent trails of headlights that passed on the highway. Underneath the surface of that night, borne on the back of a bass drum from a blown-out speaker system, there was a steady pulse that would come to obsess and haunt me. Call it the pinnacle of lyricism, or east coast hip-hop's emergence from the shadow of west coast gangsta rap; call it the thief's theme, or, simply, rap's greatest work. For me, it was the soundtrack of being chased from childhood and the denouement of my shattered family, played out against the stark soundscape of New York City's Queensbridge projects.
That soundscape is what carries and breathes through this masterpiece. There aren't fast cars, big houses, or frills. You can smell the streets, see the clouds that hang over Queens, and feel the pain in Nas' voice when he talks about those lost to the violence. Yet, despite the horrors and darkness it contains, the most important part of Illmatic is its soft underbelly: one of lament and reflection, memory and timelessness. The album is about crime, loss, and numbness – but it also looks forward to a possible future and to escaping the cycle.
Nas created this classic as all great artists do: by acting as a purveyor of the universality of the human condition through his own experience. Every time I hear the rumblings of the F train as it kicks off the first track on Illmatic, I'm back in that summer night, with the run-down minivan and the blown out speaker system. Only this time, there's no pain, and no fog, and no broken mother waiting at home. There's just Nas rapping, coming outta Queensbridge.
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