There is no fun in required listening, no matter how good the album. I believe the music we appreciate the most is music that we discover on our own, without hype. This is how I developed a fondness for jazz while most of my peers were enjoying hip-hop, and why I completely missed the boat when Nas released his debut album, Illmatic in 1994. When I say it wasn’t even on my radar, it’s not hyperbole.
Now, as the iconic album celebrates its 20th anniversary, the hype is at an all-time high. So, I decided to give Illmatic the listen it deserves, spending the last week listening to it every opportunity I got. I know I’m mad late to the party, but I listened closely and it all makes sense. Here we go, a track-by-track review of all the songs on the original Illmatic.
N.Y. State of Mind
No classic can start half-heartedly. If Nas spit nothing else after this, it would still be one of hip-hop’s greatest songs.
Life’s A Bitch
Growing up more a fan of West Coast hip-hop, this track charts high with me for it’s sampling of “Yearning For Your Love” by the Gap Band. But I’m older now and I can appreciate Nas and AZ’s verses about the twists and turns life provides, about narrowing escape less fortunate paths. As Nas said, he’s only 20 when he’s rapping this verse, but I’m sure even at 40 the theme remains relevant.
The World Is Yours
Nothing to do here but ooh and ahh at what Nas is doing here with rhyme patterns and flows. The warrior spirit he took to being MC is evident, and if you listen closely, you hear an artist starving, with ambition to one day eat off the thing he loves to do most.
Appropriately titled since it is the song square in the middle of the 10-track album, “Halftime” feels like it functions as an aggressive reminder. Nas wants to remind you that the first four tracks were not a fluke and the four tracks about to precede “Halftime” won’t be either. My personal favorite line is “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/that’s like Malcolm X catching the jungle fever.” And I don’t even smoke.
Memory Lane [Sittin’ In Da Park]
DJ Premier produced three songs on Illmatic: “NY State of Mind,” “Represent,” and this song, which, for my money, is the best of their collaborations. Nas paints the most vivid pictures here of his childhood growing up in Queens at the Queensbridge projects, name-dropping the famous criminals (Fat Cat) and gangs (Supreme Team) long before other artists like 50 Cent later did.
Hard to believe at the time, but the song’s producer and the voice on the hook belongs to Q-Tip, who was arguably more famous as a member of A Tribe Called Quest. I never realized until I began my intensive study of this album how all the verses are rapped in the form of letters to incarcerated friends and family. The storytelling here is impeccable and the performance is detailed in the way he transitions into the tales of individuals without even breaking stride or using the hook as a break.
One Time 4 Your Mind
It’s clear by now Nas wanted listeners to understand the details of his life growing up a kid in New York City even on the laziest days. If the slowed-down beat provided by Large Professor isn’t an indication of what Nas wants to do - giving us a more relaxed side to his day-today - his reference to listening to Ron G’s mixtapes, which were known for their R&B selections, bring this song into full focus. It’s a song that feels like Nas wanted to prove he can be great without even trying.
Skip this at your own risk. These three verses from the man who called himself God’s son had my head spinning. It’s aggressive Nas, and even though he had moments where he explicitly would talk about using guns, he also had slick ways of referencing himself as a dangerous man like when he refers to himself as a “brutalizer, crew de-sizer.”
It Ain’t Hard To Tell
Just like a strong beginning is key to keeping an audience’s attention, an ending must leave that same audience wanting more. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” does this perfectly beginning with Large Professor’s production. The sampling of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” adds an element of celebration to the song’s triumphant feel, and Nas rises to the occasion, rhyming like a man who has just proven to everyone else that he is indeed one of the best and will be for a long time. Twenty years later, it ain’t hard to tell, he was right.
Remember, Nas has been added to the ESSENCE Festival lineup. Get your tickets!