I’m glad Alex picked Illmatic for our first album.
I’ve never really listened to Nas before, even though I’ve been aware of his and Illmatic’s reputation for years. My reasons for not listening have been nonsensical: I always thought Nas had kind of a stupid looking face, and I thought Illmatic‘s (iconic) cover art was boring and gave off a vibe that was way too this-is-a-rap-album (as if we couldn’t tell).
The 2003 book edition of Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although deeply flawed, was maybe the single most influential book in my life between the ages of 13 and 18. Illmatic is album number 400 in that book, I think. It took me several years to go from dweeby classic rock boy to tentative hip-hop enthusiast, yet even once I did, taking Rolling Stone’s canon as my guide, Illmatic was not one of the rap albums from the list I found myself naturally drawn to. It wasn’t that I thought I would dislike it; there’s just so much music out there to try that sometimes the ways we decide whether to give something a shot or not are completely arbitrary.
Even as I grew familiar with Illmatic’s towering reputation over the years—as a perennial candidate for greatest hip-hop album of all time, as a standard by which any potential classic in the genre is measured, as basically the Great Gatsby of rap, I still neglected to actually listen to the thing. I was instead seduced by things like Action Bronson’s “raps about food” schtick, and Cam’Ron.
It wasn’t just that I was stubborn. Nas’ whole steez struck me as too normal. He seemed like a guy who would be, at best, really good at rapping in sort of a meat-and-potatoes, conventional way. Nas has no point of view, no cool gimmick. He keeps it real. (Important sidenote: At this point I’m still basing this assessment entirely on Nas’ image, and on the way he gets talked about, rather than any experience of his music. But as evidence of the power image and critical discourse can hold, I submit that I stand by my whole knee-jerk, pre-listening assessment to Nas’ shit; all my assumptions are correct. It’s my reaction to Nas, now that I’ve heard him, that’s been less predictable.)
Enough background, though, because that shit’s boring.
The first time I heard Nas was in the soundtrack to the 2014 movie Dope, which includes “The World Is Yours,” off Illmatic. I’m not exaggerating that much when I say that “The World Is Yours” is the best part of Dope. I hunted the song down online when I got home from the theater. When I found out it was a Nas song, I knew I should probably listen to Illmatic. But I still didn’t.
I finally listened to Illmatic last Sunday and it sorta blew my mind.
When you’re approaching an album that’s hyped as the best ever in its genre for the first time, you go in expecting that it might not be able to live up to the reputation.
Illmatic pretty much does, though. It’s neither overrated nor underrated. It’s one of the most “rated” albums I’ve ever heard. Is it the indisputable greatest rap album of all time? Eh… I don’t know. I don’t think that’s a question that has an answer.
In fact, I think one of the things that makes Illmatic so excellent—its brevity—could be seen as a strike against it in the “greatest rap album” debate. Because rap’s period of greatest popularity and cultural saturation coincided with the CD era in the ‘90s, there is a strong tradition of classic hip-hop albums being sprawling affairs, packed to the gills with skits, guest features, and posse cuts. The obvious downside for putting an album together that way is that a lot of hip-hop albums are padded with filler. But the upside is that really great rap albums are able to conjure whole worlds for the listener to get lost in over the course of many listens.
Illmatic, despite its considerable merits, doesn’t really do that.
What Illmatic does do, however, is impressive on its own terms.
My favorite track on the album is still the first one I heard, “The World Is Yours,” because “The World Is Yours” has an incredible beat. A lot of hip-hop production was still pretty spare in the mid-90s, but Pete Rock’s beat on “The World Is Yours” is lush as hell. And it’s catchy. The recurring chant of “Who’s world is this? It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine” is a whimsically perfect hook, and it’s possible to read it multiple ways: Is it a confident rhetorical question, or is the repetition a mark of insecurity?
When it comes to hip-hop, I tend to be more of a “beats first” listener. I don’t always appreciate pure rapping technique on first listen because my brain is a little too slow for the quickness of the language. (You’ll notice I’m not exactly talking a ton about lyrics here—for what it’s worth, I like what I’ve been picking up.) Some older rap tires me out by focusing too much on the lyrics and not giving me enough detail in the production to satisfy me. I worried that would be the case for Illmatic, but I was wrong.
“Life’s a Bitch” is another standout for me. AZ does a great job on his guest verse, but it’s the production once again that seals the deal for me: there’s a simple repeating chord change played on an electric piano laid over what sounds like a looped drone on a cheap synth, and the way the subtly snapping, propulsive drums push against the melodic stasis of those keyboard parts makes the song sound as if it’s being beamed in from a dream state. To toss the chorus “Life’s a bitch and then you die” into that sonic environment is a beautiful bit of contrast.
One of the things that makes Illmatic great is actually one of the things that I used as an excuse not to listen to it for years: it succeeds in a totally boring way. Nas is a brilliant meat-and-potatoes rapper. He keeps it real. The thing is, I didn’t realize how good that could be, how much I would actually want that type of greatness in my life, till I actually put the album on and listened to it straight through.
Illmatic lives up to the high expectations engendered by my years of hearing about it without hearing it because it encapsulates all of hip-hop’s essentials. It’s got a really good rapper rapping at the top of his game over a batch of consistently exciting beats sourced from a group of producers who are almost all now hip-hop legends. It does all this with ruthless efficiency.
A Tribe Called Quest crystallized the essential qualities of classic hip-hop with the title of their 1996 album Beats, Rhymes & Life. On Illmatic, Nas and his interlocutors do a pretty good job of embodying all three.
Verdict: Illmatic’s pretty pocket, and it slaps.
Favorite tracks: “The World Is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park),” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”