“Back in ’83 I was an emcee sparkin’/But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks, and/Kick my little raps ‘cos I thought n*ggas wouldn’t understand/And now in every jam I’m the f*ckin’ man”.
Nas – “Halftime”
Illmatic is the debut studio album by American rapper, Nas, released on April 19, 1994 (twenty-third anniversary today). Production was handled by DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S and Nas himself. Illmatic features “multi-syllabic internal rhymes and inner-city narratives based on Nas’s experiences in Queensbridge, New York”.
Debuting at number 12 on the US Billboard 200 chart, it sold 60,000 copies in its first week. However, its initial sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success. Despite initial poor sales, Illmatic received rave reviews from music critics, who praised its production and Nas’ lyricism.
On January 17, 1996, the album was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and on December 11, 2001 it earned a Platinum certification after shipping one million copies in the United States.
Since its initial reception, Illmatic has been recognized by writers and music critics as a landmark album in East Coast hip-hop. Its influence on subsequent hip-hop artists has been attributed to the album’s production and Nas’ lyricism. It also contributed to the revival of the New York City rap scene, too. The album is widely regarded as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, appearing on numerous best album lists by critics and publications.
The cover of the 1974 jazz album, A Child Is Born (Howard Hanger Trio) has been cited as a possible influence on Illmatic’s artwork. From thereon in turn, Wu-Tang’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah asserted that The Notorious B.I.G pinched the idea from Nas in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… track, “Shark N*ggas (Biters)”.
Indeed, the baby on the cover of Ready To Die, released later that year, seemingly a representation of Biggie in his infancy, had more than a passing resemblance to the theme of Illmatic’s youthful cover.
It seems this flattery went further than that, too. In “Halftime” Nas raps, “I rap in front of more n*ggas than in the slave ships/I used to watch ‘CHiPs’, now I load Glock clips”. Then Biggie, in “Gimme The Loot” also rapped, “I’ve been robbin’ motherf*ckas since the slave ships/With the same clip”.
Even fellow rapper buried six feet under, 2Pac, made a passing reference, altering “One Love” line “make the right man bleed” into “make the white man bleed” in the posthumous “God Bless The Dead”. Nas also had feuds, the former more friendly than the latter, with both artists.
“The Genesis” sets the scene, trains racing down tracks and thick, thick bass with the hip-hop drums kicking hard. “…you’re sitting at home doin’ this sh*t? I should be earning a medal for this. Stop f*ckin’ around and be a man. There ain’t nothin’ out here for you” is the question as a father seems to deplore his errant son (Ready To Die’s “Intro”, anyone?).
This, of course, is meant to be a sampled quote from Wild Style, a 1983 film about a South Bronx graffiti artist. This obviously resonated with Nas, though this time the real life story concerns an up and coming rapper.
It’s siege mentality in “N.Y. State Of Mind”, it’s sneaky bass and industrial drum like New York City streets. It’s moody with flourishes of tense piano suggesting intrigue and danger. “I never sleep, ‘cos sleep is the cause of the death” such an iconic hook, the first of many for the album’s ensuing duration.
“Life is parallel/To hell but I must maintain” the motto of a man striving in the most difficult, treacherous urban circumstances. “The smooth criminal on beat breaks/Never put me in your box if your sh*t eats tapes” references the listener personally, further immersing them in the culture and setting.
There’s an adage of universal truth in “Life’s A B*tch”, featuring the only album cameo proper in AZ. It’s a smooth one, kicked back and relaxed. The cameo shines during his verse, but also seems to impact most during the hook of, “Life’s a b*tch and then you die/That’s why we get high/’cos you never know/When you’re gonna go”.
Soulful but also really jazzy, too. The bass deep and low, locking in with those hand clicks. The cornet’s closing refrain is by Olu Dara, none other than Nasir’s father.
The inspiring “The World Is Yours” is piano driven, striving. Positive and bleak at the same time. “To my man Ill Will, God bless your life” perhaps offers insight into the name of the album in question. The track’s empowering, the anthem for millions of ghetto children.
You can be anything you want to be (perhaps inspiring the 2002 “I Can”), kind of thing. “I’m the young city bandit, hold myself down singlehanded/For murder raps, I kick my thoughts alone, get remanded” a clever line pertaining to that ambition to succeed whilst, at the same time, acknowledging the pitfalls of the crime all around those hard city streets.
You’re midway with “Halftime”, and it’s more up tempo and moody, the soundscape to a hectic mind. “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/That’s like Malcolm X catchin’ the jungle fever…I’m a Nike-head/I wear chains that excite the Feds” is braggadocios and intellectual.
“I got it hemmed, now you never get the mic back/When I attack, there ain’t an army that could strike back” has you feeling your favourite rapper’s indestructible. “I’m an intellectual of rap/I’m a professional/And that’s no question, yo” confirms the prior evaluation. What sounds like Christmas sleigh bells punctuates the beat throughout, wintry like the coldest of emcees.
“Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)” is hazy with a certain sadness, comfort in melancholy. What seems organ combines with searching vocal akin to gospel. Maybe memory lane is looking back to all who’ve past away, like the aforementioned Ill Will?
“True in the game, as long as blood is blue in my veins/I pour my Heineken brew to my deceased crew on memory lane” insightful and determined. “The most dangerous emcee is coming down memory lane” is very bold, indeed!
It’s a message of “One Love” next. It has percussion chiming bleakly, delicately like said bass heads, off their heads on crack cocaine and heroin. “F*ck it, black, no time for lookin’ back, it’s done/Plus, congratulations, you know you got a son” really paints a vivid story, a story to get your teeth and ears into. It appears to narrate writing a letter to a close friend in prison, one on a long stretch.
Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest repeats the words of the hook with a mix of resignation and hope. Get there in the end, kind of thing. “Could’ve caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up/Mistakes happen, so take heed, never bust up” is the message, double bass playing mournfully and evoking Queensbridge urban life.
“One Time 4 Your Mind” sounds like a stoner track, certainly more than any of the preceding tracks. A bragging track in many respects, lilting bass climbing as the ash of a joint drops to the ground. “It’s Nasty, the villain/I’m still writin’ rhymes, but besides that I’m chillin’” almost seems delivered with a wry wink and smile. “My brain is incarcerated…” seems like the mind state of someone locked in public housing and encumbered with drug dealing.
“Represent” seems to be a posse track, Nas and his associates getting amped. Certainly those around him hammering out that crowd shout hook. “High school dropout, never liked the sh*t from day one” blunt and rebellious.
Again, percussion plays its part in creating a heady soundscape with deep, transporting powers. “Before the BDP conflict with MC Shan/Around the time when Shante dissed the Real Roxxane” seems to be a potted biography of, at least partially, Queens’ hip-hop. A young Cormega also gets a shoutout.
Illmatic ends suitably big in scope for the closer. Indeed, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” is an inspired way to close an excellent album. Sampling Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, of course an astute choice. “Hit the Earth like a comet — invasion!/Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half-man, half-amazin’” really goes hand in hand with that triumphantly emotive melody of the sample, reaching for the stars, knowing no limits of ambition and dreaming big.
“…so analyze me/Surprise me/But can’t magmatize me/Scannin’ while you’re plannin’ ways to sabotage me” hammers that message home. “You’re still a soldier, I’m like Sly Stone in Cobra” perhaps a way of saying, I can be as successful as the number one white actor in Hollywood. And so his career would go on to prove, one day.
“The Genesis”, “N.Y. State Of Mind”, “Life’s A B*tch”, “The World Is Yours”, “Halftime”, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”, “One Love” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” are absolute classics. Short but sweet, and you’re less likely to get sick of Illmatic because it doesn’t drag on. Nas’ Illmatic can be heard on iTunes, here.
Words by Andrew Watson