Release Date: April 19, 1994
#400 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time"
Prior to the release of this now legendary and ground-breaking album, hip-hop had arguably developed into a very fragmented genre of music, both geographically and stylistically. Geographically, as with the rise of Death Row records, and several conscious rappers like Del, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pharcyde, L.A. had become the new hip-hop capital of the world. the industry in New York was left in its wake (for this review we are conveniantly ignoring the Wu's "36 Chambers" in 1993). Meanwhile in terms of style, commercial hip-hop, and specifically gangsta rap, had popularized a self-centered syle of narrative which relied on promoting oneself and blasting others on simple one-liners and rhyme schemes.
Enter Nasir Jones aka. Nas. 1994's Illmatic displayed not only some dangerous and grimy beats that reflected the violent nature of the NYC streets, but more importantly, a vicious poetic style that combined the hardness of gangsta rap, with the highly-detailed narrative, skillfull obeservation and deep self-analysis that was often the focus of conscious rap. Along with Wu-Tang, Nas helped firmly re-establish NYC/East Coast as the epicentre of rap, and nearly every rapper who strives to work beyond the now horribly rigid structures of commercial rap owe it to Nas and specifically this album- even Nas' arch-enemy Jay-Z.
- the intro begins with an obscure sample and a background of a subway rattling along the tracks. Enter a tight beat and a punchy sample and a very grimy and hardened setting is established for the album: you can almost picture the bleak NYC urban hell that Nas will often reiterate throughout the course of the album right here. 4/5
2. N.Y. State of Mind
- The opening track is definately one of the hardest. a sinister & rolling piano sample dominates the course of the song, accompanied by another tight and punchy beat. simple buy very poignant. Nas' vocals here enter like a ton of bricks: He sounds ridiculously confident and hardened, yet his detailings of the everyday schemes of "crackheads","bitches", "freaks" and "black rats" hints at the intellectualism that his contemporaries could never fathom is their raps. lines like "life is parallel to hell but i must maintain" and of course the famous "I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death" provide an excellent and poetic account of life in the ghetto that was never presented in such a light. 5/5
3. Life's a Bitch
- featuring AZ (") who sounds very young, but confident and self-asured, features a smooth rhythm and poignant percussion which weaves wonderfully with Nas' smooth flow (contrary to Jay-Z's later claims on "The Takeover"). the trumpet solo sampled at the end adds wonderfully to the sparse production and the bleak images presented by Nas.
4. The World is Yours
- With a dark, but mysteriously ascending (almost heavenly) piano loop, and dusted with a shimmering drum beat, this is another short hip-hop gem riddled with Nas' powerful narratives. His rhyming techniques are quite innovational (for the time) for the most part and he is able to maintain his gritty street persona while firing off lines like "I sip the Dom P, watchin Gandhi til I'm charged/ Then writin in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin", and "we box up crazy bitches aimin guns in all my baby pictures/ Beef with housin police, release scriptures that's maybe Hitler's". excellent track 5/5
- With a huge and imposing beat and an obscure soul-influenced vocal sample, Nas once again delivers more killer lines and observation. This song is more of a self-analyis sort of piece and Nas in this respect is able to fire off some gangsta-like self-bravado but with a level of intellectualism that trenscends simple tough-guy gestures. 4/5
6. Memory Lane
- This song is a little more relaxed with a nice soul-heavy organ sample and some etheral vocal samples blended into the background. the beat is very upbeat and sounds amazing when being smothered by Nas' apt ability for description. lines like "A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja/ Here's my basis, my razor embraces, many faces/ Your telephone blowin, black stitches or fat shoelaces" grab the listeners attention in a powerful way. 4.5/5
7. One Love
- This song almost has a feel similar to The Roots with by incorporating a loose beat and a catchy sample of an African Thumb Piano. Nas here spits off some optimistic rhymes of surviving in the ghetto and as usual, is spectacular. The vocal hook in the chorus is a little annoying and bland though. 4/5
8. One Time 4 Your Mind
- With a grimy vocal hook and a very sparse beat, this song really emphasizes the confident flow of the lyrics. Lines like "My pen rides the paper, it even has blinkers/Think I'll dim the lights then inhale, it stimulates/Floating like I'm on the North 95 Interstate/Never plan to stop, when I write my hand is hot" captures Nas' poignant imagery. 4/5
- this song mixes a tough and gritty beat and vocal hook with an obscure keyboard sample. Nas' flow here is very dynamic and in some points, sounds like its about to burst out of the speakers. Nas' hardened lifestyle is wonderously and intellectually glorified in lines like "So I guzzle my Hennesey while pullin on mad blunts/ The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator/ The type of nigga who be pissin in your elevator". 5/5
10. It Ain't Hard to Tell
- a catchy vocal hook and trumpet blare mesh over a smooth, but upbeat, beat. the line, "Hit the Earth like a comet, invasion/ Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazin", just kills. a short and simple delivery of solid rhymes in 3 minutes, this is a perfect closer to the album. 5/5
This is without a doubt, an exceptional album. where much of gangsta rap embodied old funk samples and stagnant beats, this album is a dark, brooding masterpiece in terms of production, characterized by smooth beats, and a plethora of jazz, soul, and obscure vocal samples. the lyrics, as mentioned repeadtly is the real focus here however, as there is pratically no filler in this regard- each line was written with a prior intention to leave a mark on the listener and are all successful in doing so. a masterpiece.
final rating: 5/5
N.Y. State of Mind
The World is Yours
It Ain't Hard to Tell