Music: A Look Back on Nas’s Debut Album ‘Illmatic’

Illmatic. just the title itself probably gives goosebumps to any hip-hop head such as myself. What could be said about this Nas album that hasn’t already been said? Times like this in the world of hip-hop, where dudes get paid to look cool while mumbling incoherently all over their songs or recycle the most popular and tired concepts and ideas, make it worth going back to revisit old classics.

Illmatic is definitely one of them. Nas dropped this jewel back in 1994 and it stands the test of time even to this day. How do you even begin to discuss the gravity surrounding this LP? Instead of praising the whole album and risk recycling everyone’s opinion on it, I will just look at a couple of my personal favorite tracks and delve very lightly into why they’re so special to me.

N.Y. State of Mind

At least half the songs on Illmatic have a case for being Nas’s most recognized song, but I think this one takes the crown. Produced by the legendary DJ Premiere, N.Y. State of Mind is a nearly non-stop flame fest where Nas gives a pure and unadulterated look at the rough New York lifestyle. The hook, while as simple as most of the hooks on this record, has a special quality about it from the others. The train sound-effects that loop in the background sounds like someone gesticulating with a lively handclap as the Rakim sample drills into your head that this, this song, is what a New York state of mind is.

The World Is Yours

Thief’s Theme was the first Nas song I ever heard. The hook of that song is just another mind-blowing line in The World Is Yours. In my defense, the line itself rolls off the tongue like butter. It’s possible one of my favorite Nas bars, and I think a whole song born from it is completely warranted. Especially since Thief’s Theme is also really good. Anyway, I love the jazzy smoothness of this cut. Just a great ‘keep your head up’ type of song with no clichés or filler needed. Throughout the track, Nas speaks upon a lot of foul and terrible things, yet the song’s entire tone gives you that silver lining kind of feeling without ever having to explicitly say it. Someone like Logic could learn a thing or two from this track…

Halftime

I only have one question: How has this song NEVER been in a sports video game soundtrack yet? It’s almost criminal. I know the song was on the Zebrahead soundtrack but come on. The name of the song screams for it. On top of that, the song itself is just straight up fun to listen to. Nas doesn’t get too deep with his lyrics on this one. He just hits you with a never-ending stream of punchlines. So, it doesn’t take too much brain power to understand. Plus, the beat is jumpy and has a lot of flair with the bells jingling in the background along with the horns that complement the hook. It’s also sequenced perfectly on the album. After the first few deep and evocative tracks, Nas gives your brain a rest to prepare for the second half of the album while still filling your ears with fire.

Represent

This song has one of the toughest opening lines on the album. Nas comes correct, raw and in your face on this one. A classic street anthem to be sure. The track has that feeling of a semi-organized get-together before Nas gives a riveting speech to his crew both lyrically and literally at the end of the song. The chanting hook reinforces this nature. It’s just an all-around energetic track that gets you hyped about being a part of something bigger than yourself.

It Ain’t Hard to Tell

Probably my favorite song on the entire LP. A simple but extremely effective way to end the album. Nas mixes the punchlines and the deepness together well in a compact and easily digestible package. No real hook to be found here unless you count the Human Nature sample as being it. I imagine the structure of this song is what Nas probably wanted Illmatic to be like originally. A few verses with maybe a sample speaking for itself to split them up. Even N.Y. State of Mind was originally just one long verse.

Most great lyricists aren’t the best at writing hooks. Nas is no exception, and the rest of his discography is evidence of this. The lack of any real hooks outside of Life’s a B**** is probably Illmatic‘s biggest weakness. Even so, it’s also probably its only weakness. At 40 minutes, the record doesn’t ask for much of your time. It accomplishes everything it set out to do in that span as well. If by some chance you haven’t listened to this record yet, consider setting 40 minutes of your time aside to do so. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Are you a fan of Nas? Can you recall this album? Leave a comment below.

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