ILLMATIC: THE ILLEST THERE EVER WAS
By: Thobele Nzama
The year is 1994. The Hip-Hop music phenomenon is coming into its own. Every label is seeking to find the next big thing. Amidst all this, Nasir Jones is ready to explode. Already a household name in the New York underground music scene, it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world would get to know his superb mic skills. Hailed as the next generation Rakim, this rapper represented the most elite of MCs who valued the art of true lyricism.
Columbia Records signed the teenage Nas to their record label and from there, Hip-Hop heads/fans all over awaited the return of street style New York sound Hip-Hop from a fresh new rapper ready to claim the New York throne. As soon as Illmatic was released, the influential Hip-Hop magazine of the time, The Source, gave it an instant 5 mics rating, labelling it an undoubtable classic by any standard.
The album was released at a time when the West Coast or more formally known, Los Angeles, seemed to be reigning supreme as Snoop Dogg’s Doggy style was the ‘it’ album of that moment. The East Coast/New York game needed to be revived and Nas did more than that- he ultimately changed the entire Hip hop landscape The beats laced on Illmatic were rough, rugged and raw – a real hard core New York sound. On the first track Genesis one is given a clear glimpse of what is to follow, but it is with track two, New York State Of Mind that Nas begins to shine rhyming gems such as, “ It drops deep as it does in my breath 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.”
The fusion of Hip-Hop and Jazz has made the third track a favourite for many, highlighted by the fact that it is the only track that features a guest rapper, A.Z, on Life’s A Bitch, making it a bit more special.
On track 4, Nas’ intention was to remind us all that the The World Is Yours. Laced with a classic beat this gem was just an awesome pick-me-upper, with lyrical content such as “My strength, my son, my star will be my resurrection. Born in correction all the wrong shit I did he’ll lead a right direction.”
Track 5 is a laid back work of art, the beat and word play is perfectly in sync making Halftime memorable. Nas truly elevated lyrically on track 6, employing rhyme patterns like, “ Sentence begins indented with formality my durations infinite money wise or physiology poetry that’s a part of me retardedly bop I drop that ancient manifested hip hop straight off the block. “
On One Love, Nas also went in with a refined sound on the song doing what we know him to do best. Track 8 is basically Nas lacing intricate word play on One Time for Your Mind.
Track 9 resonates best with the hard core listener as it is a pure street vibe classic. “Straight up shit is real and any day can be your last in the jungle get murdered on a humble guns blast niggas tumble the corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals who don’t care guzzling beers we all stare. “
The last song It Ain’t Hard To Tell is lyrically on point- “This rhythmic explosion is what your frame of mind is chosen, I’ll leave you brain stimulated niggas is frozen, speak with criminal slang behind like a violin end like leviathan/ its deep well let me try again. Mc’s eavesdrop though they need not to sneak, my poetry is deep I never fail/ Nas raps should be locked in a cell/it ain’t hard to tell.”
After this album was released many rappers that came after had to change their style because Nas had shook the game up. Many more were influenced by Nas including the likes of Jay-Z and others although they may not openly admit this.
llmatic is the benchmark of what Hip-Hop was, is and should be. It epitomised the very core basics of this art form and for the mere fact that it is still being praised after its 20th anniversary has earned Nas a prominent place in Hip-Hop.
Many claim to be ill but Illmatic remains the illest there ever was, showcasing to everybody the peaks Hip-Hop can reach when it comes from a place of hunger.