The Namesake — Nas’ Illmatic

In homage to one of the greatest albums of all time, Nas’ Illmatic…

Nasillmatic

by: Michael Shields

I am a stitch in an online thread. (I love how the internet adopts and brings new meaning to words that were doing just fine on their own.) A thread, as I am sure you already know, is a collection of posts that hit your inbox or it is, simply put, a bunch of emails. This particular thread is a chance for a group of people throughout the country to share ideas about a mutual passion, in this case music. Here is how it works: Each Friday an album is chosen and a link for a complimentary download (gasp…) is provided. Each person is to listen to the album at their own leisure and report back on their feelings, their past experiences with the music, and other thoughts. It’s just good fun. The albums are not picked randomly but rather a Pitchfork list of the best 100 Albums of the 1990s sets the lineup. The list is fairly strong — it’s classic after classic really. I had little issue until the list winded down to the lower half of the 30s1 and sitting there, blatantly out of place, was arguably the greatest hip-hop album of all time…Nas’ Illmatic.

I should have known there was a serious problem, in terms of respect for hip-hop albums, when Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx2 came in at number 99. But I looked past that as I actually understand how people don’t fully apprehend the grandeur of Rae’s masterpiece (Well, I don’t but I’m giving a pass). But how could arguably (and bear with me…I am here to make that argument) the finest hip-hop album of all time be the 33rd best album of a decade? Any decade? What’s more is that there were hip-hop albums ahead of it. (Although they were Ready to Die and Fear of a Black Planet — one is as revolutionary as music can be and the other is Big…but still.).

Illmatic is a perfect album top to bottom. Perfect. No flaws. This is something that can be said of very few albums of any genre, and fewer when just keeping it in the rap game. Each song has become hip-hop legend and few who enjoy the art cannot roar along with the chorus of every single track. It’s an album that painted, perfectly, a picture of post crack NYC (specifically Queensbridge) in all its deteriorated glory. Nas put on a clinic of lyricism and if rap can be seen as street poetry, which is how I see it, then Nas is rap’s Langston Hughes. (This piece is entitled “The Namesake” as lyrics from Illmatic — specifically “The World is Yours” — inspired the name of this very website.)

To listen to the album front to back is to go on a ride. It starts hot with “New York State of Mind” in which Nas is heard saying “I don’t know how to start this.” Premiere, who produced the track,3 tells a story of how Nas truly didn’t know how to start, didn’t know what he was going to say and how it shook Premiere to the core when what followed that line was the glory that is “NY State of Mind.” “Life’s a bitch” is ghetto pessimism at its best, and also a reminder to live in the moment, get it while you can type stuff. Things get real nostalgic during the next three tracks, nostalgic in the fashion that Nas has become famous for — musing over days of old in the hood. Those tracks “The Worlds is Yours”4, “Halftime,” and “Memory Lane” walk us through his past, taking you into all the fun, and also the pain, as he pours “Heineken brew to my deceased crew.” “One Love” is thoughtful in that it is a letter to a friend of his in jail (who just had a kid), and then the album gets real braggadocios to close out (this is the rap game after all) with “On Time for Your Mind,” “Represent,” and “It Aint Hard to Tell.” Everything great about hip-hop neatly packaged in one flawless album. Even Nas’s dad, Olu Dara,5 makes an appearance, playing a cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.”

Illmatic changed the game, an overused cliche but appropriate if ever. It brought the level of rap to new heights, a bar many attempt to still reach6. It’s technical precision and lyricism at it’s most brazen and the album is far greater than the 33rd best album ever made, let alone just the 1990s.

Below, to conclude this discussion on an album which debuted a mere eighteen years ago yet still sounds out-the-box-fresh, I offer up some choice lyrical cuts from Illmatic so that we can give Nas himself the opportunity to speak for himself, something he is so proficient at…

From “NY State of Mind”:

In the streets I can greet ya, about blunts I teach ya
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times

Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind

From “Life’s a Bitch”:

I switched my motto — instead of sayin fuck tomorrow
That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto

From: “The World is Yours”:

I sip the Dom P, watching “Gandhi” ’til I’m charged
Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin
To hold the mic I’m throbbing, mechanical movement
Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with

From “Halftime”:

It’s like that, you know it’s like that
I got it hemmed, now you never get the mic back
When I attack, there ain’t an army that could strike back
So I react never calmly on a hype track

From “Memory Lane”:

my pen taps the paper then my brain’s blank
I see dark streets, hustling brothers who keep the same rank
Pumping for something, some uprise, plus some fail
Judges hanging niggas, uncorrect bails, for direct sales
My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails
I reinforce the frail, with lyrics that’s real

From “One Love”:

Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind’s in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er

From “One Time for your Mind”:

Heine(ken) Dark drinker, represent the thinker
My pen rides the paper, it even has blinkers
Think I’ll dim the lights then inhale, it stimulates
Floating like I’m on the North 95 Interstate
Never plan to stop, when I write my hand is hot
And expand alot from the Wiz to Camelot

From “Represent”:

Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game
Used to sport Bally’s and Gazelle’s with black frames
Now I’m into fat chains, sex and Tecs
Fly new chicKs and new kicks, Heine’s and Beck’s
Represent, represent!!

From “It ain’t hard to Tell”:

It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail
The mic is contacted, I attract clientele

and

Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L
School a fool well, you feel it like braille
It ain’t hard to tell, I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill
Vocabulary spills I’m +Ill+
plus +Matic+, I freak beats slam it like Iron Shiek
Jam like a tech with correct techniques
So analyze me, surprise me, but can’t magmatize me
Scannin while you’re plannin ways to sabotage me
I leave em froze like her-on in your nose
Nas’ll rock well, it ain’t hard to tell

  1. Besides Tortoise’s ‘TNT’ in the 91 spot, a seminal album in my life that barely made the cut. []
  2. Do not get me started on this one…the purple tape and I have a storied past. []
  3. Other notable producers on the album were Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, and L.E.S.. []
  4. The most optimistic track on the album and used in perfect contrast to the previous track. []
  5. Who is a spectacular musician as well, check the album In the World From Natchez to New York. []
  6. It’s fascinating to think we have MC Search to thank in so many ways in regards of Nas’s career and getting this album made. []
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