Review Summary: Wondering about life in the streets of Queens, New York? Don't worry; Nas has it all painted out for you.
Hip-hop is sometimes a difficult genre to review in depth, mainly because of the minimalism in the backing beats and the heavy reliance on the rapping itself to balance out said beats. Thus, it can often be tough to discern certain hip-hop from other forms of the genre unless one's a dedicated, focused fan of the style. However, some special artists can become instantly recognizable through their subtleties, production values, and such. Nas has become such an artist with his poignant debut, Illmatic.
Now, many people have since touted Nas as the next Rakim with his witty lyricism and overall sense of style about him. While this is somewhat true, it would still be doing Nas a disservice, seeing as he's a unique artist all his own, and has made his own massive influential mark on rappers everywhere.
While some subsequent albums by Nas would be keepers in their own right, nothing could match the poetry and beats of this highly acclaimed record.
The first thing you notice when starting the album is the extremely gritty production, bringing more life to the streets that Nas is conveying here. The first track, "The Genesis" is a wonderful way to introduce the dark, murky, and depressing tone of the album. While it's simply an intro, it is still an excellent one nonetheless. The REAL fire comes in with "N.Y. State of Mind." The song doesn't start with a bang nor a burst, but a nice stroll through the hellish abyssal streets of Queens, New York. While a split piano sample rolls things along on both ends, Nas spits out rapid lines about his childhood and gang life in his native city/housing project. The song is based heavily around the minimalism of the piano, effectively serving to further emphasize Nas's bleak poetry. Overall, the song is a stone-cold hip-hop classic, deserving a place in any fan's collection.
The songs that follow do so in a similar vein; They're never moody, simply dark and oppressive; such an example is "Life's a Bitch," AZ's guest track. Both Nas and AZ perfectly describe a vivid picture of getting high, because they never know when death's hands would readily take them. The backing music is quite soothing to begin with, giving the listener time to catch his/her breath before the rapping takes place again.
The one slight sign of hope in the darkness comes with the song "One Time 4 your Mind," a track about what Nas does in his spare time. The song itself still contains a somber tone, but the mellow feel of the rolling bassline gives a certain catchy flavor to the song. The track also features a nifty call-and-response chorus between Nas and Large Professor, which certainly adds to the track's diversity. The most melodic track on the album would probably be "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)." The song begins with a somewhat positive organ sample with a higher-pitched organ melody to balance it out. This is all until Nas uses his cold rhymes to bring the listener back to Earth; The balance between Nas's bleakness and the organ's positivity sends the listener a false message of hope, and thus a very convoluted listen.
Also worth noting here is the input of Nas's father, famed jazz musician Olu Dara, into the record. He uses the cornet to bring an extra diverse, almost fusion-esque feel to the tracks "Life's a Bitch (Only the ending, though)" and "It ain't Hard to Tell." His playing makes a very unique presence on the record, mixing a jazzy style with Nas's rhymes.
All in all, Illmatic is absolutely legendary, and it is one of the biggest reasons that people still listen to East Coast Hip-Hop in the first place. If you're a fan of hip-hop, this album deserves a place among the greatest records in the genre like "Ready to Die" (Notorious B.I.G.)," "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (Public Enemy)," and such. I give this my absolute highest recommendation.