What we’re listening to (#2): ‘Illmatic’ by Nas

Nasir Jones, a Brooklyn born rapper and hip-hop artist, has released 8 consecutive platinum and multi-platinum albums since 1994 – over 25 million of his records have been sold worldwide. After featuring on Main Source’s track Live at the Barbeque, Jones burst onto the scene with his debut album.

Nas raps on the first verse – “When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”

Widely heralded as a landmark East Coast Hip-Hop album, and receiving credit for reviving the New York rap scene, the rapper released ‘Illmatic’ when he was just 20 years old. The 10-track album chronicles Nas’ experiences in Queensbridge, New York, as he grew up.

The artist’s influences are strange, having cited Kiss, the Jackson 5, and songs from the musical ‘Grease’ as being the inspiration for his dream – to be in front of audiences performing his heart out.

Many people have compared Nas to Rakim, another New York rapper who is widely regarded as being one of the most influential and skilled rappers of all time –

“Nas, the poetic sage of the Queensbridge projects, was hailed as the second coming of Rakim—as if the first had reached his expiration date. […] 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” – William Jelani Cobb

This is one of those albums that I can genuinely listen the whole way through without getting bored – I can’t even listen to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ the whole way through (Temporary Like Achilles, I just can’t), but that’s probably down to personal taste.

After you get past The Genesis which sets a serious tone with dialogue pulled from the 1983 movie ‘Wild Style’ and ending with Nas and others speaking about their dreams and goals, he opens the album.

“Stop fucking around and be a man”

Now, if you’re going to go away and listen to any song off this album, let it be N.Y. State of Mind. There aren’t many songs that grab you with their opening line, but this song will do just that, and you know straight away that you’re in for a treat:

“Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap, where fake ni–as don’t make it back”.

The haunting loop of the piano loop provides the backdrop as Nas tells us about his early upbringings, with a saggy backbeat keeping pushing the track forward.

The flow is unreal – I know that that sounds stupid, but this is a song that makes you feel like a gangster when you’re walking down the street. The lyrics can actually be understood, not pointing any fingers (cough* Eminem cough*).

In 5 minutes, he tells us how he goes from selling drugs on the street to make ends meet, how he builds up empire, how he wants to get out of the system and do bigger things, and he, no matter how much he tries, he’s stuck in the projects of Queensbridge. What’s more, the way he tells us this is incredible. Internal rhyming schemes and complex wordplay are littered throughout the entire song, and the emotion in his voice can really be felt.

This album is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the decade, and not just for hip-hop reasons. Nas pours thematic significance into ‘Illmatic’, drawing on all of his influences, from old-school hip-hop to blues and avant-garde jazz – Nas listened to a lot of jazz when he was growing, helped by the fact that his father Olu Dara being a  jazz musician. Dara features on his son’s track Life’s a Bitch with a cornet solo.

The amount of effort poured into this debut album is almost unmatched, and the relationship and chemistry displayed between Nas and DJ Premier (one of four producers) is unbelievable.  He could have easily gone for the tried and tested misogynistic lyrics, as well mindless violence, but he did not, and the hip-hop world thanks him for it. A must listen.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

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