Illmatic shouldn't be forgotten

Friday 21st June 2013 | Keshav

This year marks the 19th anniversary of New York Rapper Nas’s debut album Illmatic. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in hip hop history. Although not majorly successful when released the album received rave reviews and is still to this day one of the greatest albums in the genre.

Tha album was released in 1994 is to this day regarded as influencing a generation of rappers. Nas was born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones in 1973 in New York.  Nas knew his calling was in music from a young age. In 1992 he released his debut single ‘halftime’. The track announced his arrival loud and clear. Many were impressed by his flow and the immense rhyming talent he clearly possessed. The song included lyrics which really caught the imagination:

 I'm an intellectual of rap, I'm a professional but that's no question, yo. These are the lyrics of the man, you can't narrate, understand cuz in the streets, I'm well known like the number man

People were excited about Nas and comparisons started to be drawn with Rakim ( one of the main artists in the golden age of hip hop). However sceptics quickly dismissed these as they awaited the young New Yorker to release his first album. In April 1994 Nas dropped ‘Illmatic’. At the time it wasn’t properly appreciated as it only reached number 12 in the billboard charts.

What made this album so good was it clever production. The secret to the production was the various numbers of producers that worked on the album each one bringing their own sound. This allowed beats to sound fresh and new.  It seemed this type of process would set a trend for generations to come whereby artists worked with multiple producers to make albums. It seemed that every beat was produced to perfection and suited Nas’s flow perfectly.

The album title ‘Illmatic’ also has a story behind it. The title was thought of after a lyric in Nas’s song Halftime. Nas described in an interview it meant    

Supreme ill. It's as ill as ill gets. That shit is a science of everything ill’

As for the songs themselves most definitely NY State of Mind and Life’s a Bit*h are the two standouts. ‘Life’s a Bit*h’ is perfect example of Nas’s supreme rhyming ability and skill. The song is defined by its line ‘

‘Life’s a bit*h and then ya die, that’s why we get high cause your never know when you’re gonna go’

The way the album flows and with Nas making rhyming seem effortless this album was a success especially for the ‘East Coast’ rap scene during the ‘East – West’ conflict. It was unheard of in Nas’s time for a young artist to receive so much credit but Nas proved he was to be a pivotal figure in the revival of hip hop coming out of New York especially. Before ‘Illmatic’ the west coast was dominant in terms of sales and also popularity by Nas established the east coast revival with his album. The record was bursting at the seams with influence coming from all areas of music such as jazz and soul samples and this is what really made this record the dynamic piece of work it is. In his book William Jelani Cobb wrote:

 ‘Nas never became 'the next Rakim,' nor did he really have to. Illmatic stood on its own terms. The sublime lyricism of the CD, combined with the fact that it was delivered into the crucible of the boiling East-West conflict, quickly solidified his reputation as the premier writer of his time’

It’s evident Nas‘s debut set the market alight. As soon as people became aware of his ability he quickly became the hottest property in hip hop. It’s surprising then that the album as ‘hiphop poetry’ achieved such minimal sales, but that may have been because people at the time didn’t recognise how much this album was going to affect the genre.

Many however have had their doubts over the release though. Many have claimed that an unintended cause of the album. One paper recently said

Illmatic did have one terrible lasting impact: It gave rise to the idea that rap albums would be better served with multiple producers. That lead to an overall decline in the cohesion and quality of rap albums and ushered in the era of superproducers.’

The criticism here is fair. Look at classic albums such as ‘The Chronic’ by Dr Dre widely believed one of the best albums of hip hop. The album was produced by Dre himself. Many hip hop albums today however have multiple producers which critics say don’t give the record an authentic sound and also don’t get to showcase the talents of a singular producer with a vision. To this day controversy still occurs about how highly the album was rated in music magazines. However the most important thing to take away is the sheer musical brilliance which is demonstrated in this album. Nas has gone on to do a lot of things in his career however nothing will ever match the long lasting impact of his album not only on hip –hop but the world  

Keshav Kapoor