Retroactive: “illmatic”

The Hip Hop community is obsessed with rankings and debating on who the “top emcee” is or who has the “hottest track” but one of the most heated Hip Hop debates is “Best Album.”  Well, allow me to set the record straight:  Nas’ “Illmatic” is the best Hip Hop album ever made.  Clocking in at 39:51, its a quick jaunt through the mind of the young New York rapper in the early 90’s.  It’s depiction of early 90’s New York and the realness imbued into every line makes this album a classic.  Nas was 20 years old at the time of this album’s release in 1994 and it featured production from a who’s who of soon-to-be Hip Hop superstars including Dj Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip.  At this point, hundreds of articles have been posted detailing each track and line down to the minutiae but what I want to talk about is what this album meant to me personally.  But first, if you haven’t ever heard it, prepare your mind, sit back and just enjoy the incredible lyricism Nas puts on display:

When I first heard this album, my mind was blown.  12 year old Sean probably didn’t understand most of the lyrics or the dark stories behind them (that appreciation came later) but I knew when I heard someone rapping their ass off and Nas was the best I’d ever heard.  At this early point in my life, Hip Hop was becoming my genre of choice.  I’d gone the “pop” route with Nelly, Lil’ Jon, Ludacris etc. but Illmatic signaled my first shift towards the type of rap/Hip Hop I would learn to love and enjoy for the rest of my life.  It astounded me the way he was rapping.  Rhyming almost every syllable while still maintaining a story throughout and keeping it “ill” the entire time.  I can’t pick a bad track off this album and whenever I put it on, I have to listen to it front to back.  It’s a perfect album in my eyes.  I’ve enjoyed it in so many different ways including but not limited to seeing Nas perform the whole thing live to listening to a vinyl copy of it with B.Lim while we play 2k.  Many times throughout the day I catch myself repeating a line or two from that album or rappng whole verses without even realizing. It’s ingrained in my consciousness.  With that in mind, I’m gonna give you my personal favorite line from each song in my breakdown below:

  1. The Genesis: “No doubt, we gon’ keep it real, true, true”
  2. N.Y. State of Mind: “I never sleep-’cause sleep is the cousin of death//beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined//I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.”
  3. Life’s a Bitch f/ AZ: “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high//’cause you never know when you’re gonna go” – AZ
  4. The World is Yours: “behold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement//understandable smooth shit that murderers move with”
  5. Halftime: “Nasty Nas has to rise ’cause I’m wise//this is exercise ’til the microphone dies”
  6. Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park): “I rap divine, God, check the prognosis: is it real or showbiz?”
  7. One Love: “Words of wisdom from Nas: try to rise up above”
  8. One Time 4 Your Mind: “I’m new on the rap scene, brothers never heard of me//Yet I’m a menace, yo, police wanna murder me”
  9. Represent: “Straight up, shit is real//And any day could be your last in the jungle”
  10. It Ain’t Hard to Tell: “My mic check is life or death, breathin’ a sniper’s breath//I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps

Bonus: “Time is Illmatic, keep static like wool fabric//Pack a 4-matic that crack your whole cabbage” – Nas, Life’s a Bitch


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