Reagan, Relevance, and Good Rap

I am trying to think of a way to sum up the most prominent feelings I have on Illmatic. The subject matter of the album take us inside the life of growing up in New York City in the early 90’s, something I never have or never will experience. So as a preface, personal relatability to this album is fairly low.

In a time where Reagan’s anti-black, pro-incarceration policies still ran rampant, Nas enlightens us with tales of dealing with discriminatory cops, his streets filled with crack, murderous cops, and troubled youth. “N.Y. State of Mind” tells of kids with guns, crack addicts, and how nothing is like New York city. “Life’s a Bitch” offers a theme that still resonates with today’s rappers: get paid while your here cause who knows long that’ll be. “Represent” is a trans-generational anthem documenting police brutality and standing up for one’s hood.

Growing up in one of the whitest suburbs in Minnesota, I cannot relate to the situation Nas grew up in. But there are similarities between his experiences then and the world we live in now. Police brutality against African Americans is still a large problem in this country. One could even argue we have taken a step backwards in recent years. The crack epidemic (Thanks Reagan…) is comparable to the heroine epidemic we are dealing with now. Nas’ Illmatic and its themes and lyrics are still relevant 22 years later, and continue to have a lasting impact on the hip hop community.

Every track has a memorable beat and good producing, culminating in a well-polished album. Lyrically, Nas has rhymes that this generation can compare to Kendrick Lamar, but their flow is very different. Nas’ flow is not flashy in the slightest, but is perfectly timed to mesh with the beat behind him.

Overall, I enjoyed this album. It gets a little tiring near the end, leaving listeners clamoring for something closer to the first 5 tracks. It has those classic 90’s beats that everyone enjoys. The lyrics are potent and raw, finding relevance even today. I would recommend this album to anyone looking for a good album with historical significance that has held up over time.

 

Rating: 7.5/10

Favorite Song: “Life’s a Bitch”

Favorite Lyric: “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing, The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh” – “Life’s a Bitch”

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Illmatic: a stoner-poet’s Manifesto

My dad didn’t like it, so it’s probably good.

Released in 1994, Illmatic feels like a relic from an era when rap had more to say than whether or not an app made a million a minute (I hear it did). I’m not going to presume to know enough about rap to try and place Illmatic in its historical context, though I’d point out the contrast between this and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle from the previous year; the albums have similar chill vibes and stoner/gangster content, but where Snoop revels in this activity (an accomplishment in its own right), Nas explores and even waxes poetic about institutional racism, the absurdity of gang violence, and the very purpose of art in his world. Truly, Illmatic  is an album of a modern poet.

One of the most common themes of Illmatic is the  way that death is held at bay by music, as he notes in “The World Is Yours”:

“The beats make me falling/ I keep falling, but never falling six feet deep.”

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Death makes Nas sad.

This is the refrain in the first half of the album: these rhymes are personal salvation. But by the end of Illmatic, Nas’s raps are redemptive for his crew as well, and potentially can save the world.  The final line of the album suggests the these lyrics should be locked up if the status quo is to be maintained and “murder cops” are allowed to run rampant.

 

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America makes Nas sad

Regardless of lyrical content, Illmatic is right up my alley musically. Its laid back, its got a full sound and revolves around the vocals, instead of trying to distract us from them (I’d target Kanye again here, but I don’t want to draw attention to my lack of rap chops)

I think that the album loses steam in the second half. “One Love” is a rich, savoring exploration of street life, but it’s followed by the deliberately plodding”One Time 4 your Mind”, and the two really dilute the drive of the album.

You also have to really appreciate the contributions of Nas’s crew to the album. Usually you’d expect them to talk shit during the intros and hooks, but AZ actually contributes one of my favorite verses in “Life’s a Bitch”.

Simply put, Illmatic is a lyrical marvel, and NY State of Mind is a special treasure that I’m putting on my “Chill Shit” playlist.

8/10 Buddha sacks.

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Hats make Nas sad