Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

From judging its title alone, Illmatic undoubtly is one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded. For a hip-hop enthusiast such as myself, it’s clearly self-explanatory given its archival significance and convoluted ingenuity. For non-believers, allow me to clarify as Illmatic is chastely science. In the world of a hip-hop fan boy or backpacker, Illmatic is usually held in high regard whether in terms of its versatility, its ability to tell a vivid or imaginative story, or simply its raw yet timeless production that rivals that of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or The Beatles’ infamous Abbey Road. It’s not one of those albums where you casually hand-pick your favorite tracks and move onto the next project nor is it an album you listen to only once. It is a record one must listen to from beginning to end in order to fully understand its discerning subject matter told through first person narratives. What the album showcases is beyond conventional and on April 19, Illmatic will turn 20 years old, holding up impressively well in a digital generation that has long forgotten about the multi-syllabic masons such as Guru and Big Daddy Kane that made up the Golden Age of Hip-Hop spanning from 1987 to 1994.

There is nothing unoriginal or flawed about the overall embodiment of Illmatic. What makes Illmatic so peculiar and so unworldly is its robust methodology and layered manifestation. Discovered by fellow Queensbridge native, MC Serch, Nas and the 3rd Bass MC immediately excogitated the idea for Illmatic in 1993. Nas caught the attention of the public eye when he was featured on “Live at the Barbeque” by New York hip-hop group, Main Source in 1991. It was not until 1992 when Nas made his subsequent solo debut on the soundtrack for the Michael Rapport film, “Zebrahead,” in which featured his very first single entitled, “Halftime.” Upon its release, the single was overwhelmingly embellished by critics and hip-hop fans alike.

If I could sum-up Illmatic simply using one word, my word of choice would be “magisterial.” When Illmatic broke ground on the morning April 19, the album was not changed by hip-hop, it was the album that changed hip-hop and it did so without being something it wasn’t – a big-budget overproduced mess that many recording studios were compiling in the early 1990s. So what makes Illmatic ahead of its time? Well, it all begins with Nas, a child prodigy and poetic sage who won over fans and critics alike even before the album was issued. Nas’ debut was unlike anything the hip-hop world ever heard before. According to journalist, Peter Shapiro, the staff writer for Spin, stated that Nas’ lethal ability to create a “devastating match between lyrics and production,” as well as creating a “potent evocation of life on the street” were what single-handedly defined Illmatic as an LP. Renowned as one of hip-hop’s greatest innovators in storytelling, Nas brought the art form to its aesthetic peak when he cobbled together singular narratives pertaining to letters he sent amongst incarcerated friends, unfaithful girlfriends, emotionally-tortured mothers, and underdogs whom he remained loyal to such as “One Love.” One writer describes the theme of the album as a “Story of a gifted writer born into squalor, trying to claw his way out of the trap. It’s somewhere between The Basketball Diaries and Native Son.” Nas was only 20 years old when Illmatic underwent sampling treatment by its executive producer, MC Serch in the post-production stages and throughout its calculated recording, the young MC managed to cover a bulk of his childhood in a span of only nine tracks. Many of the themes found in Illmatic revolved predominantly around Nas’ experience living in an inner city environment where poverty, violence, and drug use abound. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, residents of Queensbridge experienced a wave of intense violence, as the housing development was overrun by the crack epidemic that swept the community off its feet. Illmatic contains imagery inspired by this prevalence of street crime found in the Reagan Era.

Aside from its undying conception and Nas’ use of internal rhyme pattern and assonances- What else makes Illmatic so worthy of universal acclaim especially on the cusp of its 20th anniversary? That second honor happens to fall in the realm of Illmatic’s production which is equally as superior as Nas himself. According to scholars, the album’s core producers Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and Q-Tip extensively contributed to the cohesive atmospheric aesthetic that permeated the album, while still retaining each’s individual, trademark sound. For instance, DJ Premier’s production on the album is lauded by critics for his minimalist style, which featured simple loops over heavy beats.

Illmatic is also the focus of a significant work of hip-hop scholarship, “Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic” (2009), edited by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai. “Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic” is the very first academic project to assemble a group of  scholars to reflect on a specific hip hop album. In the introduction, Daulatzai explains the singular focus on Illmatic, writing:“Some might ask, why Illmatic? Why not Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back, or Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted? No doubt these were great albums, coming at a moment when hip hop was cutting its teeth on social commentary and refining its ear on dusty breaks, hard snares, and sonic mayhem. But there is something about Illmatic that transcends the categories that have ever existed about hip-hop. Something complex about its simplicity, something elusive that we felt we wanted to explore. Straight up though, Illmatic is just a dope album, embodying everything that is hip-hop while mastering what matters most: beats and rhymes.”

Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.

Author profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *