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.”
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.
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.