Review Summary: Among the most honest and gritty looks at street life, and certainly the one I recommend highest.
A lot of hip-hop artists love to talk about street life as though it were some sort of game, and this has garnered the genre a lot of attention from the media. Artists such as 2Pac flooded their songs with a plethora of curse words whilst Lil' Wayne is more than happy to spend entire albums rapping words that hardly even rhyme about how he is getting lots of women and cash and shooting guns. More than often the case is that these artists have never touched a gun in their life, but certain artists have a lot of credibility behind their stories but suffer from the way that their songs sound as though they are boasting. One artist who does not fall into this bracket is Nas and his seminal album "Illmatic".
"Illmatic" is a gritty, dark look at urban life told in an honest manner with lyrics that do not beat around the bush at all. Nas is an artist who is not afraid to come out and say exactly what he thinks about street life, and tells his stories in what is surely the most truthful manner ever put to tape. From the opening lines of "NY State Of Mind" through to the closing bars of the album it is one hundred percent to the point and has a really genuine feel to it. It is not an album that is stretched and convulted to the point of being irrelevant but Nas certainly takes his time so that not one aspect of hood life is left out. From the stacking riches side of street life to the graphic descriptions of guns jamming and having to flee in a dog-eat-dog world, this release has it all.
Flow-wise, Nas' performance is absolutely scintillating. Every line is delivered with an air of menace to it that just adds to the realistic feel of the album. Each song has its own identity and each song is vocally varied but still they feel at home among one another. And if the flows are good, then the lyrics are on another level entirely. This is an album that is jam-packed with multi-syllabic rhyme schemes that are almost untouchable. The introduction track "The Genesis" sets the tone for the release with its ghetto sound, and then when the rapping starts on the first proper song, the aforementioned "NY State Of Mind", this release comes into its own. The open nature of these narratives about life on the New York streets is just unbelievable and the lyrics themselves are flawless.
Each song has its memorable lines such as "I never sleep cuz' sleep is the cousin of death" but this is not really one that is about being catchy nor having sections that stand out. This release is intended to be one straight story-telling experience from start to finish with harrowing lyrics that are intelligently crafted and it does this masterfully, but what are lyrics like these without a good beat to back them? The beats on "Illmatic" have a very gritty, filthy feel to them, with the bass being very prominent in the mix, as should be expected from a hip-hop album. There are also a few guest appearances and cameos on "Illmatic", with the one from AZ on "Life's a Bitch" standing out as being most memorable.
The best track here be the overly sad, haunting "Life's A Bitch". This track has some very intricate lyrics that are ridden with so much emotion it is hard not to be moved after hearing it. The piano mixed into the background of the beat is primarily what contributes to the overly sad atmosphere this song creates and the feelings it invokes. The chorus is a very memorable one:
"Life's a bitch and then ya die,
That's why we get high
Cuz ya never know when ya gonna go".
This track shows best Nas' unique style of multi-syllabic lyrics during its second verse and is probably the strongest song in his entire catalogue, although that isn't for me to decide. If there is one track off here that I recommend you listen to then it is this one.
"Illmatic" is one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time and after hearing it for the first time it will strike you why. Songs such as "Life's A Bitch" and the spectacular closing song "It Ain't Hard To Tell" show Nas' lyrical prowess whilst "NY State Of Mind" and other tracks are testament to the monumental level of honesty that "Illmatic" contains in its lyricism.