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“Time is Illmatic”

Illmatic in 2020

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Nas’ debut album Illmatic. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest Hip Hop albums ever recorded.  Notably, Nas was just 20 years old when he released the album in 1994 under Columbia Records. Consequently, Hip Hop hasn’t been the same since.  The album itself can be seen as a defining moment in Hip Hop history in how influential it was.  It almost single handedly created the distinctive sound that would be indicative of Hip Hop in the 90’s. Listening to Illmatic in 2020 is a different beast in that Nas is now considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. However, I’d argue that his debut project still holds up and is relevant to all fans of Hip Hop and in fact music fans in general today.

Personally, I consider Illmatic to be the greatest Hip Hop album ever made. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Nas paints a vivid picture of his life in Crown Heights, New York that was simultaneously beautiful, gritty and realistic. When Nas wrote this album, he was just an average kid living in New York. After it’s release, he came a Hip Hop legend. The raw aspect of this album’s creation is what made it such a pivotal moment. It’s also what makes Illmatic in 2020 one of the most important albums to go back to.

“Rap’s Disciple…”

When Nas raps, you need to keep your ears open.  He spits with incredible precision. Each line is placed perfectly within each verse as he weaves his story throughout nine unbelievable tracks.  This record has zero skips. Illmatic also benefits from the best production the rap game had seen at the time. DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip all lend a hand to make this album what it is. The result is a timeless classic.

Nas’ wordplay is what drew me to this album and it’s what keeps me coming back to this day. Below, we’ll go through each track highlighting some of my favorite lines. It’s my assertion that this album is just as relevant today as it was the day it was released in 1994.  

1. The Genesis

“No doubt, we gon’ keep it real”

– Nas
  • New York subways? Check. Wildstyle sample? Check. Live at the BBQ? Check. Escobar season has arrived…

2. N.Y. State of Mind

  • Produced by DJ Premier

“Inhale deep like the words of my breath//I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death//beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined//I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”

– Nas

Quite possibly the best opener to an album…ever. Premier on the beat and Nas waxing poetic about life in New York is a timeless combination.

3. Life’s a Bitch

  • Produced by L.E.S.; Featuring AZ

“Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high//’cause you never know when you’re gonna go”

– AZ
  • This is a song set in reality. Everyone has those days where nothing goes right and you just gotta sit back and say ‘fuck it’. This is also one of the only features on Illmatic and AZ makes the most of it with an incredible guest verse.

4. The World is Yours

  • Produced by Pete Rock

“writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin//To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement//understandable smooth shit that murderers move with”

– Nas

One of the best aspects about Nas’ career is the way he weaves a positive message into his albums. His music always carries a belief that you can rise above your station and that’s apparent here on “The World is Yours”. This might be the best song on the album as it contains an incredible beat and sample by Pete Rock. However, it’s Nas’ lyrics and optimism that make thing song a timeless classic that remains relevant when listening to Illmatic in 2020.

5. Halftime

  • Produced by Large Professor

“Nasty Nas has to rise ’cause I’m wise//this is exercise ’til the microphone dies”

– Nas
  • Halftime is the track that made me fall in love with Nas and quite probably Hip Hop in general. Nas spits straight bars on bars over a boom bap Large Professor beat that is everything us Nas fans could ever want.

6. Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)

  • Produced by DJ Premier

“I rap divine, God, check the prognosis: is it real or showbiz?”

– Nas
  • As time has gone on I think this is the track that has aged the best when listening to Illmatic in 2020. With the jazzy sample taking center stage and Nas’ vocals fitting perfectly over it, it’s a track that could be released today and sound at home. Nas absolutely bodies this track and the chemistry between him and DJ Premier is evident immediately.

7. One Love

  • Produced by Q-Tip

“Words of wisdom from Nas: try to rise above”

– Nas
  • Illmatic is so good because each one of these tracks is unique while also sticking to a specific overarching sound. “One Love” is storytelling rap at it’s finest. Nas is essentially writing a different letter to his incarcerated friends with each verse changing perspective. It’s a style Nas would perfect as his career went on but “One Love” is the original. Nas also got a huge assist from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on the production and the hook.

8. One Time 4 Your Mind

  • Produced by Large Professor

“I’m new on the rap scene, brothers never heard of me//Yet I’m a menace, yo, police wanna murder me”

– Nas
  • Even on a song where Nas is “chillin”, he still manages to rap his ass off and run circles around his competetion. This track is the equivalent of a James Harden stepback. Nas never speeds up his flow or slows it down. He simply takes what the beat gives him and sinks the 3 in your face. Calm, cool and collected.

9. Represent

  • Produced by DJ Premier

“Straight up, shit is real//and any day could be your last in the jungle”

– Nas
  • Illmatic flows so smooth as an album in that each song transitions into the other effortlessly. Putting “Represent” right after “One time 4 Your Mind” was genius placement.We go from a James Harden stepback during “One Time” to a Russell Westbrook full court transition dunk during “Represent.” This is also DJ’s Premier’s third track on Illmatic and each one is a classic.

10. It Ain’t Hard to Tell

  • Produced by Large Professor

“My mic check is life or death, breathin’ a sniper’s breath//I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps”

– Nas
  • “Hit the earth like a comet…” Nas spits on the album closer… By the time you get to “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” you’re in a state of shock. Illmatic is a brisk 39 minutes but Nas’ talent is undeniable once you hear him spit that last line: “It ain’t hard to tell.”

“Time is illmatic, keep static like wool frabric//pack a 4-matic that crack your whole cabbage”

Nas, “Life’s a Bitch”

Written by Sean Curley

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