Well, seeing as how I have mentioned Illmatic, Nas' debut album, probably somewhere close to five-thousand times on this blog, I may as well review the album and get it out of the way now.
It all started when Nas appeared on Main Source's cut, "Live At The Barbeque," back in 1992. This was absolutely vital to Nas' career, as, in doing so, he befriended Main Source group member Large Professor who would go on to produce three songs on Illmatic, including the album's lead single, "Halftime," which was released in the same year.
The second Nas became known to the masses, the 19-year old immediately drew comparisons to Rakim. He displayed impeccable lyricism, outstanding flow, and picture-perfect storytelling ability, all qualities that were ever-present on Nas' debut record.
Nas was not only able to enlist Large Professor on Illmatic, but also DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S., all of whom, along with Nas, would combine to form what many hip-hop heads consider to be the greatest release in rap's illustrious history.
Now, enough with the formalities. Let's get to the review.
1. The Genesis
Some people consider this a song, some people don't. Consider me as being part of the latter group. Next.
2. N.Y. State of Mind
The album kicks off with a DJ Premier beat that many consider to be one of his greatest productions. The instrumental features some deep piano keys with a high note popping up every few seconds, and the kick drums on this bang. This cut is also home to this famous Nas line: "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death." Many acknowledge "N.Y. State of Mind" as being the best song on Illmatic. I don't, but it's still good.
3. Life's a Bitch
"Life's a Bitch" is the only track on Illmatic that features a guest verse, and AZ does the honors and jumpstarts his own career by doing so. The beat is co-produced by L.E.S. and Nas (don't kid yourself; I'm sure Nas had very, very little to do with the production) and is probably the album's most soulful instrumental. This is one of the few songs that are both depressing and uplifting at the same time. Strange, but true.
4. The World Is Yours
The Pete Rock joint. This is most people's "runner-up" to "N.Y. State Of Mind" for the project's most superior song, and with good reason. PR's jazzy production is very upbeat, and Nas sounds right at home over it, spitting three classic verses.
I think I've said before that I'm a sucker for shakers, so, obviously, I really like this cut, as shakers dominate Large Professor's instrumental. Again, this was Illmatic's first single, and while it may seem like a conspicuous choice given some of the other songs on this album, you have to realize that nearly every track on this project is single material.
6. Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)
The second of three Premo beats on the album. It's an odd Premo beat, too, as you rarely hear vocal samples in his instrumentals, but, nevertheless, this sounds damn good. As phenomenal as Nas is lyrically throughout the entirety of Illmatic, "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" may be his best performance, as he spits two immaculate verses on this cut. This part in particular really sticks out to me: "Sentence begins indented, with formality, my duration's infinite, moneywise or physiology."
7. One Love
Q-Tip is on the boards here, and he creates a beat that sounds like something that would play in the jungles of Africa. Well, that's what I got out of it, anyway. The sample is exceedingly peaceful, and, given the title, that is obviously very appropriate. What I love most about this instrumental is the reverberating snare Q-Tip uses. It knocks. As far as Nas goes, he raps three verses, the third of which is renowned by many as one of the greatest verses in hip-hop history.
8. One Time 4 Your Mind
A large faction considers this track to be the weak link on Illmatic. I can see why, as Large Professor's instrumental is probably the most "ordinary" beat on the album, but I really like this song. Nas' second verse is very, very impressive, and I dig LP's laid-back production. This is also the shortest cut on the record.
Awesome cut here. DJ Premier's piano-driven production provides a sense of urgency, and Nas rises to the occasion, spitting these two bars right off the bat: "Straight up, shit is real, and any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns'll blast, niggas tumble."
10. It Ain't Hard To Tell
Another Large Professor beat, and it's his best on the album. "It Ain't Hard To Tell" comes in right behind "Represent" as my favorite song on Illmatic, and it's a great, great way to conclude the project, as it consists of Nas bragging about how flawless he is, something he had every right to do after the first eight songs. LP's production matches Nas' exuberant mood, as the vocal sample and the horns that are present where the hook would be (Nas does not rap a hook on this) provide the listener with an upbeat backdrop.
Illmatic is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums ever. While it isn't my personal favorite, it is impossible to deny the overall faultlessness of the project, as Nas' outstanding raps combined with the incredible production behind him makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.
The funny thing is, the key to Illmatic is not Nas' lyrical performance or the beats; it is the length. There are only nine full songs on the album, leaving a very, very little chance of error. If Nas extended the album a bit, maybe a mediocre (or simply bad) cut would have snuck its way in and ruined the perfection of Illmatic, but, thankfully, Nas didn't give that potential occurrence an opportunity to rear its ugly head.
Even the "weaker" songs on Illmatic would be standout tracks on most other albums. This is one of the few records you can listen to all the way through without getting bored or skipping any tracks. The formula on Illmatic is absolutely flawless, and that is what coerces people to hold it in such high esteem.
Have there been albums that contained more eye-opening lyricism than Illmatic? Yes. Have there been better-produced albums than Illmatic? Sure. However, it is the complete package that makes Illmatic such a classic piece of work and arguably the greatest hip-hop album ever. It also is credited for "saving" the east coast, as Nas' debut arrived at a time when Dr. Dre and the west coast were dominating the rap scene.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you to add this to your collection, so I won't even bother. Now I will do arguably the toughest task of my entire life: pick the top five best songs on Illmatic.
TOP FIVE TRACKS
1. Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)
3. It Ain't Hard To Tell
5. The World Is Yours