Album Analysis | Nas - Illmatic
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, we take a look at an album that is often cited as a staple hip-hop album, bringing the East Coast scene back into the spotlight and exposing the world to the true reality of living in New York.
For some, New York is the most important city for hip-hop culture. With each borough bringing something different to the table, it holds an array of rappers and producers that have their own unique style. However, during the early 1990s, the West Coast scene led by Dr Dre and his Death Row Records empire, were creating hit after hit, dominating the scene. The Big Apple became desperate to return to the limelight and in 1992, the world was exposed to a new artist that would be dubbed the new Rakim for his lyrical abilities. Performing freestyles during the Main Source “Live at Barbeque” show, Nasty Nas brought a fresh take on the hip-hop genre. Immediately grabbing the attention of MC Serch of 3rd Bass, who became his manager, Nas was propelled into a major label contract with Columbia and would begin creating his debut album from 1992 until 1993.
The Barbeque performance caught the eye of some of the biggest producers in New York, and Nas utilised the talents of DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q Tip and L.E.S for the production of the album, as well as handing some of the production himself. The resultant project is 40 minutes of raw, hardcore hip-hop with saturated drums and some of the best use of samples to date. Each track features dusty drums, booming bass and iconic jazz-based samples all covered in the classic warmth of vinyl and tape. The production is very minimal and stripped-back compared to modern rap tracks, but has inspired countless producers and beat makers. Arguably one of the best uses of sampling can be heard on “The World is Yours” with the use of looping a piano solo from Ahmad Jamal over a punchy chopped drum beat expertly put together by Pete Rock. The album also samples staple artists such as Parliament, Kool and the Gang and even Michael Jackson.
The classic artwork of this album ties in perfectly with the themes and concepts explored by Nas and his producers during its 40 minute run time. The photo of a young Nas layered on top of the Queensbridge area immediately indicates what this album is about whilst demonstrating the birth of an artist's career, opening up the listener's eyes to this world he was once a part of. Originally, Nas wanted a photo of him choking Jesus Christ, as a statement on the issues of religion but this was deemed far too controversial by Columbia and therefore the now-classic artwork was created. It has been noted that there is a resemblance to the artwork of the 1974 jazz album A Child is Born by the Howard Hanger trio with the use of the photo overlay. Whether this is true or not is unknown.
Fresh from the streets, Nas based much of his image and lyrical content on his experience growing up in Queensbridge, New York. Tales of drugs, gangs and violence fill the album, but are told through an introspective viewpoint vastly different to the West Coast G-Funk subgenre, where the same stories would be told as bragging rights. A quick glance at the album notes make it clear the story that Nas wishes to tell us, with the sides of the record being dubbed 40 Side North (Side A) and 41 Side South (Side B), both references to the Queensbridge area. The first side of the album begins an introductory skit type of track called “The Genesis” in reference to the first book of the Hebrew Bible and indicating to the listener the exact beginning of the album, and therefore the story of Illmatic. “N.Y. State of Mind” presents the mindset of a New York native, with two verses reflecting on personal experiences with gang violence and drug addiction. Nas summarises the track perfectly with a few lines in the pre-chorus of the track:
“It drops deep as it does in my breath
I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothin's equivalent to the New York state of mind”
Immediately, it is possible to picture this bleak scenario of paranoia and fear that Nas must have gone through by growing up in this landscape. He can’t understand how things have changed for the worse and confidently believes nowhere else compares to the life of a New York citizen. This album opener summarises the concepts of the album and asks to consider the reality of the streets and how the artist has been shaped by them. This isn’t a new concept in hip-hop and many rappers have talked about the social issues in America, particularly poverty, racism and injustice, but few have been able to create an album which flows from each issue through tracks that feel like a diary entry.
The way Nas captures the listener's attention with his lyrics is the sole reason why he is compared to Rakim, who is often considered one of the greatest hip-hop lyricists of all time and therefore cited as the genres “rebirth” in 1994. A simple look at the track titles, “Life's a Bitch” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” both immediately create an image of frustration that Nas had for his upbringing. Throughout the '70s and '80s, New York, like many other American cities, was plagued with a Drug Epidemic that was particularly detrimental to the working-class black and Latino communities. With racial discrimination already having an impact on their lives, drugs were often seen as a way to escape reality and provide warmth in a cold world. “Life’s a Bitch” indicates this feeling.
“Life's a bitch and then you die
That's why we get high
'Cause you never know when you're gonna go”
However, there is hope for Nas in this world, and he expresses this in the classic track “The World is Yours”. He becomes hopeful for the future, with a firm belief of escaping this hard environment he has grown up in. Again, he uses the hook to question his future and summarize how he feels about escaping the streets, but through action instead of through drug use. The use of the sung adlibs glues the concept of asking our conscious selves how we truly feel and being hopeful despite how bleak life can be.
“Whose world is this?
(The world is yours, the world is yours)
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine”
Nas uses his verses to create the landscape of his current situation, where he fills his pages with lyrics, gets stage fright and faces violence on a daily basis but never gives up despite the obstacles he faces with the single line: “I keep falling, but never falling six feet deep.”
Nas is a rapper who is not only able to deliver intricate rhymes but also personal, introspective stories that have grabbed the listener's attention for over 25 years. Looking back at the history of hip-hop, it is clear to see why fans cite this album as one of the all-time greats, through creative wordplay and clever hooks.
Since the release of this album, it can be argued that countless artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z and J. Cole have been both inspired and influenced by its themes and lyrical concepts. During the 1990s, the East Coast returned with the second wave of important artists and groups that rivalled the West Coast counterparts. Although sales were slow to begin with, the album has sold over 2 million units in the US alone and gained platinum status back in 2001. It is often argued by critics and fans alike that he has yet to recapture the sheer brilliance of Illmatic. Not only was he able to bring personal stories with his lyrics, but his producers also brought a classic East Coast sound to the hip-hop world, one which has now seen a comeback in the underground with sub-genres of Boom Bap and Lofi making a storm with new producers and rappers. Any hip-hop fan may find it hard to list their top albums of all time, but it would be hard to find one that doesn't include Illmatic.