Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones (alias Nas, Nasty Nas, Escobar) is a hip hop icon and his acclaimed debut album, Illmatic (1994), is regarded as one of the greatest hip hop projects of all time. Illmatic is one of my favourite examples of top tier musicianship with Nas’ incredible lyrical ability, storytelling, flows and delivery displayed to the masses for the first time as well as elite production from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor and L.E.S.. The album sparked Nas’ legendary rapping prime from 1994 to 1996 which is unmatched to this day marking him as the greatest lyricist of his time.
Illmatic Breakdown, A Thread (Tracklist order):
‘N.Y. State of Mind’ is solidified as one of Nas’ greatest songs to date and displays his complex lyrical abilities as well as his story-telling prowess. This track is the opening song to Illmatic and shares the reality of life in Queensbridge, NY for Nas. The song is characterised by exceptional delivery, incredible lyricism, magnetic flow and poeticism.
‘Life’s A Bitch’ is the only track on Illmatic with a guest feature with AZ providing a stellar opening verse and chorus. At the time, AZ was an up and coming rapper from Brooklyn, NY and Nas certainly thought highly of his talents to warrant him a feature on what went on to become one of the most revered, acclaimed debut albums of all time.
The 1983 film ‘Scarface’ is probably the most referenced movie in hip hop history and Nas names his song after the phrase embossed on a sculpture seen during the film’s denouement. The phrase itself originates from the original 1932 version of the movie. The impact of De Palma’s Scarface on hip hop was immense and influenced other parts of Illmatic in bars such as ‘I’m like Scarface, sniffin’ cocaine’ from ‘N.Y. State of Mind’.
‘Halftime’ is the fifth song on Illmatic and marks the halfway point on the project. Aptly titled ‘Halftime’, the song was first released as a single in 1992 and later added to the album in 1994. Large Professor produced the track which has the bona fide boom bap sound.
The sixth track off ‘Illmatic’ is an introspective dive into Nas’ childhood hence its title. Nas reminisces on past experiences as a youth and their fast-paced, scarring effect on the way he views the world and by effect, their shaping of him as a more mature individual. DJ Premier produces the track with his sublime sampling of Reuben Wilson’s ‘We’re in Love’.
Nas’ ‘One Love’ incorporates the vocals of Q-Tip on the hook who is from Queens like Nas. He is a revered rapper and producer and a member of the legendary hip hop group ‘A Tribe Called Quest’. The track was also produced by Tip.
‘One Time 4 Your Mind’ begins with a chorus delivered by Nas’ friend Grand Wizard which repeats the song title while Nas bounces off with ‘Yeah, whatever’. It is simple and catchy which goes to show how the most basic of hooks can be the most profound.
This track is one of the best from the album and really exudes Nas’ connection to his hometown Queensbridge, his friends and his family.
The last track on Illmatic, ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ is another masterpiece and a great conclusion to a great album. The song has no chorus which gives the impression that it is a continuous stream of consciousness. Nas is pulling no punches in this song and its structure gives it this sense. It emphasises how passionate Nas is for pure rapping and stands out as message that he can outrap anybody – a stone cold fact during the 90s.