This week, we’ll be delving into exactly what makes Nas’ Illmatic so remarkable, and why it still stands as one of the benchmarks for what a hip hop release should be. I remember when I first really started getting into rap, I was trying to listen to every single album I could get my hands onto, all at once. This resulted in me having such an expansive and eclectic taste in rap, but never really finding an album that resounded with me, because I was listening to 10 or 15 albums at the same time, without letting anything ruminate and sink into me. That was until I listened to Illmatic, so let’s get into the five things that set this album apart from all of the treasure of ’90s hip hop.
If there was ever a scale drawn up of production in rap music, Illmatic lies somewhere between the silky jazz of A Tribe Called Quest, and the filthy grit of Wu-Tang Clan. The soundscapes that back Nas’ verses are lush, and full of nuances, but not truncated. They play their part perfectly, with a very organic combination of a heavy bass line/beat, and atmospheric samples, that allow Nas to spit what he needs to spit, and bounce. These instrumentals fit so perfectly because they paint such graphic images of inner-city turmoil and ambience.
Instead of trying to promote or glamourize street life or gang culture, Illmatic was one of the first hip hop albums to do the polar opposite, and analyse the socioeconomic issues that this culture has associated with it. Nas also opted for a very personal and candid perspective with his lyricism, with most, if not all of the verses on this album having an exceedingly personal signature to them. Though there are of course references to getting high, drunk, gang culture, and even Scarface, Nas’ words are poised beyond his years (20 years old at the release of this album) in many of the bars. Illmatic forced me to listen and be drawn into Nas’s masterful narratives, vivid wordscapes, and lush description of a plethora of topics, from street life in the Queensbridge projects, to monk-like philosophical notions.