Albums / EPs, Reviews

Throwback Thursday: Nas – Illmatic

Throwback Thursday is a new feature in which a member Radius team writes about a decidedly classic…

Throwback Thursday is a new feature in which a member of the Radius team writes about a decidedly classic album or track of their choice. Our inaugural Throwback Thursday is dedicated to the benchmark against which all classic Hip Hop albums are measured: Nas’ 1994 magnum opus, Illmatic. This week sees the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue of the seminal LP from the enigmatic Nasir Jones. The 18 year-old Queensbridge, New York-based rapper recorded a ten-track debut that served as a gritty but endlessly illuminating tour through his lifestyle, psyche and surroundings – seemingly fixed in that time, but has instead translated to the ages.

Despite innovative rhyming/lyrical wizardry, narrative proficiency and endless personality from Nas, as well as flawless production from the likes of Q.Tip and DJ Premier, Illmatic’s initial sales were weak. The album was certified platinum only in 2001. The record also met some opprobrium for its length: a mere ten tracks from an unknown artist was unusual, and perhaps still is, for the hip hop industry. But these issues positively contrast its legacy. Awarded the prestigious five mics from The Source magazine, it was ironically Illmatic – rather than the five mics themselves – that became the tangible, critical reference point, consulted in the adjudication of a rap album’s ‘classic’ status. Whether this assessorial mentality was a good or bad thing is irrelevant; the inference to be made here is that the reverberations of the LP’s impact are no less intensive two decades later. 

The hazy subway-to-Queensbridge opener ‘The Genesis’ sees Nas and his crew trash-talking, seemingly un-phased by the presence of the listener – a revealing hint indeed. The sinister piano-loop and brash verses of ‘NY State of Mind’ makes for an unsubtle and far-from-disarming follow-up. But the youthful flippancy with which Nas delivers his introspective process and societal observations to the listener across the board is disarming. Consider the prison-letter format of ‘One Love’. Nas cleverly uses this device to give an inner-circle account of the goings-on in his neighbourhood. ‘Life’s a Bitch’ foreshadows the cold, nihilistic brand of rap championed today by fellow-New Yorkers the A$ap Mob, depicting a bleak but starkly realistic outlook on life for Nas and his cronies. His pessimism never delves into the icy depths of nihilism, though, as his occasional references to and conversations with God illustrate a glimmer of faith in something other than his city and his allies. On ‘Represent’ he bluntly sets an ultimatum – “Nowadays, I need the green in a flash just like the next man / fuck a yard, God, lemme see a hundred grand.” 

His braggadocios and hubristic demeanour are indeed the armour of his youthfulness on this record; nevertheless, Nas displays a wisdom that belies his years. Like fellow Queensbridge-dweller, Prodigy, off Mobb Deep’s iconic ‘Shook Ones Pt II’ from that same year, he’s a teenager but his mind is older – weathered to the point of world-weariness, indeed not uncommon for those coming of age in turbulent surroundings. But not everybody can express this like Nas does. Nor can they – with such persuasive pride – market the banalities of their day (as with ‘One Time 4 Your Mind’), let alone in his rhyme-schemes. ‘The World is Yours’ and ‘Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)’ restore hope and suggest that, in spite of his threats to go “Son of Sam”, Nas has the propensity to overlook the desolation and a life confined to vagrancy and appreciate hope and reflection. 

While impossible to pick a stand-out track, ‘Halftime’ – originally recorded in 1992 under the moniker ‘Nasty Nas’ for Oliver Stone’s Zebrahead soundtrack – provides a sonic departure from the rest of the record, except for closing-number ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’. Both tracks are upbeat affairs with eroding basslines that aurally celebrate the album at both the half-way mark and end-point. 

The beautiful inherent contradictions presented by Illmatic mirror those of life itself: ostensibly the youthful Nas’ aged wisdom and the criticism/glorification of a lifestyle borne of urban decay. Moreover, (with the advantage of hindsight) we observe the fact that, rather than dismiss the “Airs and Chucks [and] stones with the rarest cuts” as he does on the Street’s Disciple intro, the Illmatic-era Nas boasts about his penchant for high-end consumerism. The latter contrast is noteworthy for the purposes of studying Nas’ shifting worldview over the years, but most importantly underpins Illmatic as a crystallisation of the marijuana-smokin’ street-dweller’s weathered-but-hopeful soul in ‘94 Queensbridge. 

Unfettered critical acclaim teetering on idolatry has seen the LP supersede Nas’ career-trajectory, and the artist himself, and become the handbook on how to do shit right. Twenty years on, music-critics will still posit that the album ticks all the far-right boxes in the rubric beholding criteria based on Illmatic itself. But in and amongst all its accolades, it must be stressed that Illmatic’s perfection does not render it untouchable. It is not a work only for critics, hip hop scholars or people from that era. It is as approachable now as it was then, and is essential listening for anyone who is open to this type of music.

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