Illmatic


Illmatic
Illmatic
Studio album by Nas
Released April 19, 1994
Recorded 1992–1993
Battery Studios, Unique Studios, Chung King Studios, D&D Recording
(New York, New York)
Genre Hip hop
Length 39:51
Label Columbia
Producer DJ Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., MC Serch (exec.), Pete Rock, Q-Tip
Nas chronology
Illmatic
(1994)
It Was Written
(1996)
Singles from Illmatic
  1. "Halftime"
    Released: October 13, 1992
  2. "It Ain't Hard to Tell"
    Released: January 18, 1994
  3. "The World Is Yours"
    Released: May 31, 1994
  4. "Life's a Bitch"
    Released: April 19, 1994
  5. "One Love"
    Released: October 25, 1994

Illmatic is the debut album of American rapper Nas, released April 19, 1994, on Columbia Records. Following his signing to Columbia with the help of MC Serch, recording sessions for the album took place during 1992 to 1993 at Chung King Studios, D&D Recording, Battery Studios, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. Its production was handled by Nas, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier. Stylistically a hardcore hip hop album, Illmatic features Nas's multi-syllabic internal rhyme patterns expressing inner city lyrical themes and narratives based on his native Queensbridge, New York.

Upon its release, the album debuted at number 12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 59,000 copies in its first week. However, its initial sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success. While it experienced initial low sales, Illmatic received positive reviews from most music critics upon its release and earned praise for its lyrical content, production, and Nas's lyricism. On January 17, 1996, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and in 2001, it earned platinum certification after shipments of one million copies in the United States.

Since its initial reception, the album has been recognized by writers and music critics as a landmark album in East Coast hip hop. It contributed to the regional scene's artistic renaissance in New York, while marking an influential, stylistic change in hip hop at the time. Its influence on subsequent hip hop artists has been attributed to the album's production and Nas's rapping. Several writers have cited Illmatic as one of the quintessential hip hop recordings and one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 400 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Contents

Background

Nas' life experiences in Queensbridge, New York served as the basis for Illmatic.

As a teenager, Nas chose to pursue a career in rapping and enlisted his best friend and neighbor, Queensbridge, Queens-native Willy "Ill Will" Graham, as his DJ. Nas first went by the nickname "Kid Wave" before adopting his more commonly known alias of "Nasty Nas".[1] At fifteen, Nas met seventeen-year old producer Large Professor from Flushing, Queens, and was introduced to Main Source, a hip hop group of which Large Professor was a member. Nas made his recorded debut with Main Source, recording the opening verse on "Live at the Barbeque", from Main Source's debut studio album Breaking Atoms (1991), which would soon gather a considerable cult following.[2] He later made his solo debut on the 1992 single "Halftime" for the soundtrack to the drama film Zebrahead (1992). The single added to the buzz surrounding Nas, earning him comparisons to the influential golden age rapper Rakim.[3] Despite the substantial buzz this collaboration generated for Nas in the underground scene, the rapper struggled to gain a recording contract, and was rejected by major rap labels such as Cold Chillin' and Def Jam Recordings. Nas and DJ "Ill Will" Graham continued to work together, but their partnership was cut short when Graham was murdered by a gunman in Queensbridge on May 23, 1992,[4] while his brother had also been shot, and survived, that night. Nas later cited this moment as a "wake-up call" for him.[5]

Meanwhile, the hip hop group 3rd Bass had dissolved, and MC Serch, a former member of the group, began working on a solo project.[6] In mid-1992, Serch approached Nas. At the suggestion of producer T-Ray, Serch collaborated with Nas for "Back to the Grill", the lead single for Serch's solo debut album, Return of the Product (1992).[7] At the recording session of this song, Serch discovered that Nas did not have a recording contract and, as a result, he contacted Faith Newman, an A&R executive at Sony Music Entertainment.[8] As Serch recounted, "Nas was in a position where his demo had been sittin' around, 'Live at the Barbeque' was already a classic, and he was just tryin' to find a decent deal ... So when he gave me his demo, I shopped it around. I took it to Russell first, Russell said it sounded like G Rap, he wasn't wit' it. So I took it to Faith. Faith loved it, she said she'd been looking for Nas for a year and a half. They wouldn't let me leave the office without a deal on the table."[9] Once MC Serch assumed the role of executive producer for Nas's upcoming debut album, he attempted to connect Nas with various producers. Based on his buzz at the time, numerous New York-based producers were eager to work with him and soon entered the Power House Studios with Nas. Among those producers was DJ Premier,[9] who was known at the time for his raw, aggressive production with jazz-based samples and heavy scratching, and his work with rapper Guru as a part of hip hop duo Gang Starr.[10] After his production work on Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth's Funky Technician (1990) and Jeru the Damaja's The Sun Rises in the East (1994), Premier began recording exclusively at New York City-based D&D Studios prior to working with Nas on Illmatic.[10][11]

Recording

Prior to recording, DJ Premier had listened to Nas's debut single, later stating "When I heard 'Half Time', that was some next shit to me. That's just as classic to me as 'Eric B For President' and 'The Bridge'. It just had that type of effect. As simple as it is, all of the elements are there. So from that point, after Serch approached me about doing some cuts, it was automatic. You'd be stupid to pass that up even if it wasn't payin' no money."[9] Serch later noted the chemistry between Nas and DJ Premier, recounting that "Primo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn't a situation where his beats fit their rhymes, they fit each other."[9] While Serch contacted DJ Premier, Large Professor contacted Pete Rock to collaborate with Nas on a song that would ultimately be entitled "The World Is Yours". Shortly afterwards, New York producers Q-Tip and L.E.S. also gained the opportunity to work with Nas.[9] Nas's father, Olu Dara, also contributed to the album. His cornet solo and rapper AZ's vocals were mixed with Nas's rapping in "Life's a Bitch". Throughout the recording, expectations for Illmatic were high, as AZ later stated "I got on Nas' album and did the 'Life's a Bitch' song, but even then I thought I was terrible on it, to be honest. But once people started hearing that and liking it, that's what built my confidence. I thought, 'OK, I can probably do this.' That record was everything. To be the only person featured on Illmatic when Nas is considered one of the top men in New York at that time, one of the freshest new artists, that was big."[9] During the sessions for Illmatic, Nas composed the song "Nas Is Like", which would later appear as a single from his third studio album I Am… (1999).[12]

Concerning the recording of the album's opening song "N.Y. State of Mind", producer DJ Premier later stated "Nas — he’s one of our saviors now. When we did ‘N.Y. State of Mind,’ at the beginning when he says, ‘Straight out the dungeons of rap / Where fake niggas don’t make it back,’ then you hear him say, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ ’cause he had just written it. He’s got the beat running in the studio, but he doesn’t know how he’s going to format how he’s going to convey it. So he’s going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ and I’m counting him in [to begin his verse]. One, two, three. And then you can hear him go, ‘Yo,’ and then he goes right into it."[13] DJ Premier later discussed the unexpectedness of Nas's delivery during the recording, stating "He didn’t know how he was gonna come in, but he just started going because we were recording. I’m actually yelling, ‘We’re recording!’ and banging on the [vocal booth] window. ‘Come on, get ready!’ You hear him start the shit: Rappers…. And then everyone in the studio was like, ‘Oh, my God’, ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that was when he was up and coming, his first album. So we was like, 'Yo, this guy is gonna be big.'"[13]

Music

Context

Illmatic contains discerning treatment of its subject matter: gang rivalries, desolation, and the ravages of urban poverty.[14][15] Nas, who was twenty years old when the album was released, realistically depicts the darker side of urbanity, creating highly detailed first-person narratives that deconstruct the troubling lives of inner city teenagers. The symptoms of urban poverty are also addressed throughout the album, as well as nostalgic views of his environment's history, while the album's general lyrical theme alternates from moments of pain and pleasure to frustration and braggadocio.[16] These narratives originate from Nas's own experiences in his hometown of Queensbridge, as the lyrics allude to the housing projects located in the Long Island City-section of Queens, New York.[17] Critic Sam Chennault wrote, "Nas captures post-crack N.Y.C. in all its ruinous glory ... [r]ealizing that drugs were both empowering and destructive, his lyrics alternately embrace and reject the idea of ghetto glamour".[15]

An OhWord.com columnist described Nas as a "genius introvert who rose out of the rubble of Reaganomics to bless the mic with a forward brand of introspective, redemptive street poetry".[17] The columnist also wrote "[his] narration glorifies the emergent poetic self as the embodiment of an elevated creative state that is potentially attainable by most any ghetto child ... [His] narrative voice swerves between personas that are cynical and optimistic, naïve and world-weary, enraged and serene, globally conscious and provincial ... a most worthy candidate to craft a palatable and subversive message for the rotten apple's disenfranchised youth. He was young and observant enough to isolate and analyze the positively formative moments of a project childhood while unflinchingly documenting the tragedies".[17] Richard Harrington of The Washington Post described Nas's performance on the album as "balancing limitations and possibilities, distinguishing hurdles and springboards, and acknowledging his own growth from roughneck adolescent to a maturing adult who can respect and criticize the culture of violence that surrounds him. More importantly, he recognizes the older, deeper culture of familial community that is poverty and racism's first casualty".[18]

Lyrics

Along with its powerful narratives of inner-city life and social condition, Illmatic has been noted by music writers for Nas's unique style of delivery and lyrical substance.[16] According to Steve Juon of RapReviews.com, Nas "illustrates the Queensbridge trife life of his existence [sic], while at the same time providing hope that there is something greater than money, guns and drugs."[19] Music critic Marc Lamont Hill of PopMatters elaborated on his lyricism and delivery throughout the album, stating "Nas' complex rhyme patterns, clever word play, and impressive vocab took the art [of rapping] to previously unprecedented heights. Building on the pioneering work of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim, tracks like 'Halftime' and the laid back 'One Time 4 Your Mind' demonstrated a [high] level of technical precision and rhetorical dexterity."[20] Hill cites "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" as "an exemplar of flawless lyricism",[20] while critic Steve Juon wrote that the lyrics of the album closer, "It Ain't Hard to Tell", are "just as quotable if not more-so than anything else on the LP - what album could end on a higher note than this?"[19]:

I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners
Hennessy holders and old school niggas, then I be dissin a
Unofficial that smoke woolie thai
I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie
Jungle survivor, fuck who's the liver
My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer
Sentence begins indented, with formality
My duration's infinite, money-wise or physiology
Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Childhood lesson made me see him drop in my weed smoke

—Nas, "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"

The buddha monk's in your trunk, turn the bass up
Not stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot up
Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L
School a fool well, you feel it like braille
It ain't hard to tell, I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill
Vocabulary spills I'm +Ill+
plus +Matic+, I freak beats slam it like Iron Shiek
Jam like a tech with correct techniques
So analyze me, surprise me, but can't magmatize me
Scannin' while you're plannin' ways to sabotage me
I leave em froze like her-on in your nose
Nas'll rock well, it ain't hard to tell

—Nas, "It Ain't Hard to Tell"

Production

Illmatic also garnered praise for its production. DJ Premier's production on the album has been noted by critics for his minimalist style, which featured simple loops over heavy beats.[21] The majority of the album consists of vintage funk, soul, and jazz samples.[22] According to critics, the album's four major producers (Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip) extensively contributed to the cohesive atmospheric aesthetic that permeated the album, while still retaining each's individual, trademark sound.[23][24] Q magazine noted that "the musical backdrops are razor sharp; hard beats but with melodic hooks and loops, atmospheric background piano, strings or muted trumpet, and samples ... A potent treat."[24] One music critic wrote that "Illmatic is laced with some of the finest beats this side of In Control Volume 1".[21] With regards to Illmatic's production, music critic Ben Yew wrote "The production, accentuated by infectious organ loop[s], vocal sample[s], and synthesizer-like pads in the background, places your mind in a cheerful, reminiscent, mood...A substantial reason for its phenomenal quality...can be attributed to..the most accomplished and consistently excellent music producers."[25]

Content

The intro, "Genesis", begins with an audio sample of the "Subway Theme" by Grand Wizard Theodore from the film Wild Style (1982), the first major hip hop motion picture.[22] Nas made another ode to Wild Style, while shooting the music video for his single, "It Ain't Hard To Tell", on the same stage as the finale scene for the film.[26] Nas's debut, "Live at the Barbeque" is played in the background of "Genesis".[19] The aural montage begins with the sound of an elevated train and an almost-inaudible voice rhyming beneath it. Over these sounds, a snatch of dialogue, two men arguing.[16] According to music writer Mickey Hess, in the intro, "Nas tells us everything he wants us to known about him. The train is shorthand for New York; the barely discernible rap is, in fact, his "Live at the Barbeque" verse; and the dialogue comes from Wild Style, one of the earliest movies to focus on hip hop culture. Each of these is a point of genesis. New York for Nas as a person, 'Live at the Barbeque' for Nas the rapper, and Wild Style, symbolically at least, for hip hop itself. These are my roots, Nas was saying, and he proceeded to demonstrate exactly what those roots had yielded."[16] Setting the general grimy, yet melodic, tone of the album,[22] "N.Y. State of Mind" features a dark, jazzy piano sample by DJ Premier.[27] It opens with high-pitched guitar notes looped from jazz and funk musician Donald Byrd's "Flight Time" (1972), while the prominent groove of piano notes was sampled from the Joe Chambers composition "Mind Rain" (1978).[22] The lyrics of "N.Y. State of Mind" have Nas recounting his participation in gang violence and philosophizing that "Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain", while his rapping spans over forty bars.[28] "N.Y. State of Mind" focuses on a mind state that a person obtains from living in Nas's impoverished environment in New York City.[19] Critic Marc Hill of PopMatters wrote that the song "provides as clear a depiction of ghetto life as a Gordon Parks photograph or a Langston Hughes poem."[20]

In other songs on Illmatic, Nas celebrates life's pleasures and achievements, acknowledging violence as a feature of his socio-economic conditions rather than the focus of his life.[16] "Life's a Bitch" contains a sample of The Gap Band's hit "Yearning for Your Love" (1980),[22] and has guest vocals from East New York-based rapper AZ.[27] It also features Nas's father, legendary jazz player Olu Dara, playing trumpet as the music fades out.[27] A columnist for OhWord.com wrote that Dara's contribution to the song provides a "beautifully wistful end to a track that feels drenched in the dying rays of a crimson sunset over the city."[22] "The World Is Yours" provides a more optimistic narrative from Nas's viewpoint,[27] as he cites political and spiritual leader Gandhi as an influence in its verse, in contrast to the previous Scarface references of "N.Y. State of Mind".[29] While citing "Life's a Bitch" as "possibly the saddest hip-hop song ever recorded", Rhapsody's Sam Chennault wrote that "The World Is Yours" "finds optimism in the darkest urban crevices".[15] "The World Is Yours" was named the seventh greatest rap song by About.com.[30] The nostalgic "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" contains a Reuben Wilson sample managed by DJ Premier, which comprises the sound of a Hammond organ, guitar, vocals and percussion,[22] adding to the ghostly harmonies of "Memory Lane".[31] Spence D. of IGN stated that the song's lyrics evoke "the crossroads of Old School and New School."[29]

"One Love" is composed of a series of letters to incarcerated friends,[32] recounting mutual acquaintances and events that have occurred since the receiver's imprisonment,[20] including unfaithful girlfriends, emotionally-tortured mothers and underdog loyalty.[33] According to one writer, the phrase "one love" represents street loyalty in the song.[29] After delivering "shout-outs to locked down comrades", Nas chastizes a youth who seems destined for prison in the final verse, "Shorty's laugh was cold blooded as he spoke so foul/Only twelve tryin to tell me that he liked my style ... Words of wisdom from Nas, try to rise up above/Keep a eye out for Jake, shorty-wop, one love"[19] Produced by Q-Tip, "One Love" samples the double bass and piano from the Heath Brothers' "Smilin' Billy Suite Part II" (1975) and contains a drum break from Parliament's "Come In Out the Rain" (1970), which add to the song's mystical and hypnotic soundscape.[22] The song is followed by the battle rhyme braggadocio of "One Time 4 Your Mind".[29] With a similar vibe as "N.Y. State of Mind", the upbeat "Represent" has a serious tone, as exhibited in the opening lines of the first verse: "Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/get murdered on the humble, guns will blast and niggaz tumble"[27] While the majority of the album consists of funk, soul and jazz samples, "Represent" contains a sample of "Thief of Baghdad" by organist Lee Erwin from the 1924 film of the same name.[22] Nas discusses his lifestyle in an environment where he "loves committin' sins" and "life ain't shit, but stress, fake niggas and crab stunts",[12] while describing himself as "The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator/The type of nigga who be pissin' in your elevator".[20] "It Ain't Hard to Tell" is a braggadocio rap:[16] "Vocals'll squeeze glocks, MC's eavesdrop/Though they need not to sneak/My poetry's deep, I never fail/Nas's raps should be locked in a cell"[34] It opens with guitars and synths of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" (1983); the song's vocals are sampled for the intro and chorus sections, creating a swirling mix of horns and tweaked-out voices.[29] Large Professor looped in drum samples from Stanley Clarke's "Slow Dance" (1978) and saxophone from Kool & the Gang's "N.T." (1971).[22]

Artwork

In an early promotional interview, Nas claimed that the name "Illmatic" (meaning "beyond ill" or "the ultimate") was a reference to his incarcerated Queensbridge friend, Illmatic Ice.[35] Nas later described the title name as "supreme ill. It's as ill as ill gets. That shit is a science of everything ill."[36] The album cover features a picture of Nas as a child, which was taken after his father, musician Olu Dara, returned home from an overseas tour.[3] The original cover was intended to have a picture of Nas holding Jesus Christ in a headlock,[3] reflecting the religious imagery of Nas's rap on "Live at the Barbeque"; "When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus".[9] The accepted cover, designed by Aimee Macauley, features a photo of Nas as a child superimposed over a backdrop of a New York city block,[19] taken by Danny Clinch.[37] In a 1994 interview, Nas discussed the concept behind the photo of him at age 7, stating "That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That's the year everything set off. That's the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn't leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there's more out there."[35]

XXL magazine called the album cover a "high art photo concept for a rap album" and described the artwork as a "noisy, confusing streetscape looking through the housing projects and a young boy superimposed in the center of it all."[38] The XXL columnist also compared the cover to that of rapper Lil Wayne's sixth studio album Tha Carter III (2008), stating that it also "reflects the reality of disenfranchised youth today."[38] Music columnist Byron Crawford later called the cover for Illmatic "one of the dopest album covers ever in hip-hop."[39] On the song "Shark Niggas (Biters)" from his debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... (1995), rapper Raekwon with Ghostface Killah criticized the cover of The Notorious B.I.G's Ready to Die (1994), which was released a few months after Illmatic, for featuring a picture of a baby with an afro, implying that his cover had copied the idea from Nas.[40] In a 2009 interview with XXL, Nas discussed the purpose behind the album artwork among other promotional efforts, stating "Really the record had to represent everything Nasir Jones is about from beginning to end, from my album cover to my videos. My record company had to beg me to stop filmin' music videos in the projects. No matter what the song was about I had 'em out there. That’s what it was all about for me, being that kid from the projects, being a poster child for that, that didn’t exist back then."[36]

Reception

Commercial performance

Illmatic was released on April 19, 1994 through Columbia Records in the United States.[37] The album also featured international distribution that same year in countries including France, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.[41][42][43][44] In its first week of release, Illmatic made its debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart at number 12, while selling 59,000 copies.[45] In spite of this, initial record sales fell below expectations.[3] The album's five radio singles failed to obtain considerable Billboard success, as each single did not gain significant charting on the Billboard Hot 100. The lead single "Halftime" only charted on the Hot Rap Singles chart at number 8, while "Life's a Bitch" did not chart at all.[46] Though initial sales were low, the album was eventually certified gold in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on January 17, 1996 after shipping 500,000 copies; the RIAA later certified Illmatic platinum on December 11, 2001, following shipments in excess of one million copies.[45] In April 2002, the album was also certified gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association for shipments in excess of 50,000 copies in Canada.[47]

Critical response

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 5/5 stars[48]
Chicago Tribune 3.5/4 stars[23]
Entertainment Weekly (A-)[49]
The New York Times (favorable)[50]
NME (9/10)[51]
PopMatters (favorable)[20]
Rolling Stone 4/5 stars 1994[52]
Rolling Stone 5/5 stars 2004[53]
The Source 5/5 stars[54]
Time (favorable)[5]

Upon its release, Illmatic received overwhelmingly positive reviews, as several music critics hailed it as a masterpiece.[55][56] Entertainment Weekly's Dimitri Ehrlich gave it an A- rating and commented that its "witty lyrics and gruffly gratifying beats" draw listeners into Nas's lifestyle with "poetic efficiency".[49] Touré of Rolling Stone gave the album four out of five stars and praised Nas' "sharp articulation, finely detailed lyrics and a controlled tone reminiscent of Rakim."[52] Christopher John Farley of Time commended its themes concerning ghetto life and described the album as a "wake-up call to [Nas]'s listeners."[5] Farley called Nas's rapping "dispassionate — like an anchorman relaying the day's grim news — but his lyrics sometimes reveal submerged emotion", while praising him for rendering and not glorifying "the rough world he comes from".[5] Richard Harrington of The Washington Post commended the album's "beats and textures" and praised Nas for "balancing limitations and possibilities, distinguishing hurdles and springboards, and acknowledging his own growth from roughneck adolescent to a maturing adult who can respect and criticize the culture of violence that surrounds him".[18] USA Today's James T. Jones IV gave the album three-and-a-half out of four stars and dubbed Nas' lyricism as "the most urgent poetry since Public Enemy's [...] His lyrics are deep and take several listenings to fully absorb [...] NAS feels 'blessed' to have reached age 20, but he portrays this bleak life honestly and with lyrical finesse - and without bashing women - unlike many so-called gangstas' shock-for-sales rantings".[57]

However, Los Angeles Times writer Heidi Siegmund viewed Nas's rapping as expressing "tired attitudes and posturing",[58] while accusing East Coast-based hip hop critics of "an obvious attempt to wrestle hip-hop away from the West" through their acclaim of the album.[58] In contrast, Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot commented that Illmatic "establishes [Nas] as the king of East Coast hard-core".[23] NME called it "a stunner" and stated "Nas' upbringing oozes from every pore of the music. This is the true voice of where Nas comes from, set to 40 minutes of rhythmic perfection".[51] The New York Times noted that Nas "imbues his chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness [...] [He] reports violence without celebrating it, dwelling on the way life triumphs over grim circumstances rather than the other way around".[50] Spin's Charles Aaron described the album as "the most extensive tour of a housing project ever committed to CD" and commended Nas's narratives, stating "Illmatic pays serious mind to uncertain sources, to abstract anxiety, spiritual and otherwise [...] Nas searches for an inner calm to break down his left-field-corner crazy streak".[59] Aaron found its sound complimentary to the themes and lauded its guest producers' contributions, stating "nudging him toward Rakim-like-rumination, they offer subdued, slightly downcast beats, which in hip hop today means jazz, primarily of the '70s keyboard-vibe variety".[59] In his consumer guide for The Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau gave the album an honorable mention ((2 star Honorable Mention)(2 star Honorable Mention)(3 star Honorable Mention)) rating,[60] indicating "an enjoyable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well treasure".[61]

Hip hop publication The Source initially awarded Illmatic a five mic rating,[54] a classic rating and prestigious achievement, given the magazine's influence in the hip hop community at the time.[3] The magazine's columnist Shortie stated in the review of Illmatic, "I must maintain this is one of the best hip-hop albums I have ever heard. Word."[54] Shortie also praised Nas's lyricism and thematic substance, stating "Lyrically, the whole shit is on point. No cliched metaphors, no gimmicks. Never too abstract, never superficial."[54] Jon Shecter, co-founder of The Source, had received a copy of the album eight months before its scheduled release, after which he raved about it and soon lobbied for it to receive a five mic rating.[62] This was somewhat controversial, since it was unheard of for a debuting artist to receive the coveted rating. Reginald Dennis, former music editor of the magazine and XXL co-founder, elaborated on the rating, stating "Awarding records 5 mics – classic status – has always been, on some levels, troubling to me. I mean, we are not only saying that a particular piece of music is superior to everything that is out now, but it will be better than most things released in the future as well [...] I only gave one 5 under my watch and it went to Nas’s Illmatic." Dennis cited it as "the only time I ever broke the 'no 5' rule", and went on to state "I told Jon that we'd work all of that stuff out when it was time to review the album. But everyday, Jon was like, 'yo, this album is 5 mics — seriously, Reg, 5 mics!'[62]

Retrospect

Since its initial reception, Illmatic has been viewed by music writers as one of the quintessential hip hop recordings of the 1990s, while its rankings near the top of many publications' "best album" lists in disparate genres have given it a reputation as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.[63][64][65] The album has also been recognized by writers and music critics as one of the most celebrated and influential albums in hip hop history,[66][67] while writers have also acknowledged its redefining of the East Coast hip hop musical milieu in the mid-1990s, resulting in a renewed focus on lyricism and in the revival of the Queensbridge rap scene.[3] John Bush of Allmusic cited Illmatic, along with another DJ Premier production, The Sun Rises in the East (1994), as "one of the quintessential East Coast records".[11] Jon Pareles of The New York Times cited Illmatic as a "milestone in trying to capture the 'street ghetto essence'".[68] The album has been described by a number of writers and critics as "classic".[48][50][69][70] In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), music journalist Chris Ryan gave the album five out of five stars and stated, "A portrait of an artist as a hood, loner, tortured soul, juvenile delinquent, and fledgling social critic, it still stands as one of rap's crowning achievements".[53] Similar to The Source's initial sentiment, XXL later gave the album a classic "XXL" rating in a retrospective review.[71] In 2002, Prefix Mag's Matthew Gasteier re-examined Illmatic and its musical significance, stating:

Illmatic is the best hip-hop record ever made. Not because it has ten great tracks with perfect beats and flawless rhymes, but because it encompasses everything great about hip-hop that makes the genre worthy of its place in music history. Stylistically, if every other hip-hop record were destroyed, the entire genre could be reconstructed from this one album. But in spirit, Illmatic can just as easily be compared to Ready to Die, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Enter the Wu-Tang as it can to Rites of Spring, A Hard Day's Night, Innervisions, and Never Mind the Bollocks. In Illmatic, you find the meaning not just of hip-hop, but of music itself: the struggle of youth to retain its freedom, which is ultimately the struggle of man to retain his own essence.[28]
—Matthew Gasteier

Illmatic has been included in numerous publications' "best album" lists in disparate genres.[65] Pitchfork Media listed the album at number 33 on its list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s, and the publication's columnist Hartley Goldstein called the album "the meticulously crafted essence of everything that makes hip-hop music great; it's practically a sonic strand of the genre's DNA."[72] It was listed as one of 33 hip hop/R&B albums in Rolling Stone's "Essential Recordings of the 90s".[73] It was ranked number five in "The Critics Top 100 Black Music Albums of All Time" and number three in Hip Hop Connection's "Top 100 Readers Poll".[74][75] The album was also ranked number four in Vibe's list of the Top 10 Rap Albums and number two on MTV's list of The Greatest Hip Hop Albums of All Time.[76] In 1998, it was selected as one of The Source's 100 Best Rap Albums.[77] In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Illmatic number 400 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, along with twenty-six other hip hop albums.[78] On March 30, 2004, Illmatic was remastered and re-released with a bonus disc of remixes and new material produced by Marley Marl and Large Professor, in commemoration of its tenth anniversary.[79] Upon its 2004 re-release, Marc Hill of PopMatters dubbed it "the greatest album of all time" and stated, "Ten years after its release, Illmatic stands not only as the best hip-hop album ever made, but also one of the greatest artistic productions of the twentieth century."[20]

Legacy and influence

East Coast hip hop

"This feels like a big project that's gonna affect the world [...] We in here on the down low [...] doing something for the world. That's how it feels, that's what it is. For all the ones that think it's all about some ruff shit, talkin' about guns all the time, but no science behind it, we gonna bring it to them like this. We got some rap for that ass."

Nas, interviewed by The Source, The Second Coming, April 1994[9]

Illmatic has been noted as one of the most influential hip hop albums of the mid-1990s, and hip hop pundits have considered it an archetypal East Coast hip hop album.[1][71] Columnist Adam Heimlich of the New York Press claimed that "Nas's heralded debut was an explosive, explicit rejection of the cultural assimilation of most previous hip-hop."[80] Along with the critical acclaim of the Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) and the critical and commercial success of The Notorious B.I.G.'s debut Ready to Die (1994), Illmatic was instrumental in restoring interest in the East Coast hip hop scene, while shifting the emphasis away from the melodious, synth-driven, and funk-induced West Coast G-funk, which dominated the charts for some time after Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992).[55][81] According to writer Mickey Hess, Illmatic was among those East Coast records that helped "create sparse, rough and rugged soundscapes that clearly differed from Dre's multi-layered melodies."[81] As Allmusic's Steve Huey writes, "It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics."[48]

David Drake of Stylus Magazine wrote, "hip hop was on the come-up in '94. Everything that had been building in terms of production and rapping came to an apex in '94, the year that brought us both Notorious B.I.G.'s epic debut Ready to Die and Nas' trenchant street reflections on Illmatic...This was the critical point for the East Coast, a time when rappers from the New York area were releasing bucketloads of thrilling work".[82] As Nas later recounted: "It felt amazing to be accepted by New York City in that way...at the time a lot of West Coast [hip-hop] was selling; East Coast wasn't selling as much, especially for a new artist. So back then you couldn't tell in the sales, but you could tell in the streets".[83] The assembly of producers DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and Large Professor also proved influential, as this style on a single project was unprecedented in hip hop music at the time, since most hip hop albums had been primarily the work of one dedicated production team.[3] In an article on New York hip hop, one music writer later stated "Nas's Illmatic, widely considered one of the best albums in any genre made during the past two decades, is the first to draw together top hip hop producers in the recording industry. That formula, most successfully mined by the late Notorious B.I.G. (1997's Life After Death), Puff Daddy (1997's No Way Out) and Jay-Z (1998's Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life), is what most N.Y. prospects still use today."[84]

Queensbridge

Illmatic was critical in restoring interest in East Coast hip hop, particularly New York's hip hop scene.

Illmatic is also credited with reviving the Queensbridge rap scene.[3] Once home to prestigious pioneers such as Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Queensbridge had been one of the most productive hip hop scenes in the country during the 1980s, yet it was otherwise stagnant during the early-1990s. According to Nas: "I was coming from the legacy of Marley Marl, MC Shan, Juice Crew kind of vibe. Knowing these guys out in the neighborhood. At that time, the Queensbridge scene was dead. Dropping that album right there said a lot for me to carry on the legacy of the Queensbridge pioneers."[83] In an April 2006 article, an XXL columnist wrote of the history and impact of the Queensbridge hip hop scene, stating "At a time when you can buy screwed & chopped albums at Circuit City in Brooklyn, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that hip-hop was once a local phenomenon. More than just a voice of the ghetto, hip-hop at its best is the voice of specific blocks, capturing the distinct tone and timbre of an artist’s environment. Since the 1980s, New York City’s Queensbridge Housing Projects has been documented perhaps better than any other geographic location. Starting with super producer Marley Marl’s dominant Juice Crew in the ’80s all the way through ’90s mainstays like Nas, Cormega and Capone, the Bridge has produced the highest per-capita talent of any ’hood."[85]

Following Illmatic's release, Queensbridge returned to prominence after years of obscurity, with the ascendancy of the influential hardcore rap group, Mobb Deep (who gained credibility due to their affiliation with Nas) and later with the emergence of the trend-setting duo, Capone-n-Noreaga.[3] Nas appeared on Mobb Deep's critically acclaimed studio album The Infamous (1995).[3] Furthermore, the album is credited with launching the career of the East New York-based rapper, AZ. AZ, who gained instant exposure and underground credibility due to his appearance on "Life's a Bitch", became a frequent collaborator of Nas, who appeared on his debut album Doe or Die (1995).[3] Hip hop artist and childhood friend Havoc later reflected on Illmatic in a 2004 interview, stating "We used to always hear it [Illmatic] chillin' with Nas [in Queens]. What's funny about it was he was humble with it. I would listen to it and the songs were so ill, it made you wanna cry. He was just calm, like, 'How you like it?' We was hearing it piece by piece, so when it came out, it wasn't surprising to hear everybody's reaction. Everybody was going crazy. You could not walk through the 'hood without hearing Illmatic. It was on your brain."[86]

Lyricism

Despite its initial low sales, Illmatic made a profound impact on the burgeoning hip hop underground circuit, and marked a major stylistic change in hip hop music by introducing a new standard of lyricism.[25] Before the album's release, hip hop lyricism was mostly defined by two popular forms. One was characterized by a fast-paced ragga-flow accompanied with a whimsical, often nonsensical lyrical delivery, and had been popularized by the Brooklyn-based groups Das EFX and The Fu-Schnickens.[87] The other was characterized by a slurred "lazy drawl" that sacrificed lyrical complexity for clarity and rhythmic cadence, and was exemplified by West Coast hip hop emcees including Snoop Doggy Dogg and Warren G.[88] However, Nas's rhythmically-immaculate verbal pace and intricate, multi-syllabic internal rhyme patterns on the album inspired several rappers to modify their rapping abilities — bringing a renewed focus on lyricism to hip hop during the time of its release.[3][35] According to musicologist and pianist Guthrie P. Ramsey of the University of Pennsylvania, the album "set a benchmark for rappers in an artistic field consumed by constantly shifting notions of 'realness', authenticity, and artistic credibility."[89] Music journalist Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times wrote of Illmatic, stating that Nas "perfected a dense, rat-a-tat rhyme style that built upon the legacy of 1980s pioneers like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane."[70] Author and music writer Todd Boyd wrote of Nas's unique lyricism, stating that his "poetic lyrics are some of the most poignant words ever to describe the postindustrial urban experience. His spoken-word like delivery and his vivid use of metaphor placed him at the top of the game in terms of overall skills as an MC and as a cultural commentator."[14] Boyd also wrote of Illmatic's initial impact on lyricism, stating "The baby-faced Nas was a young man blessed with an old spirit when Illmatic hit the streets and therefore his prescient words had that much more of an impact."[14]

Decline of alternative hip hop

Illmatic was one of the earliest phenomena in East Coast hip hop music that distinguished the burgeoning hardcore hip hop scene from the alternative hip hop acts of the late-1980s and early-1990s.[80] Recorded while East Coast hip hop was dominated by the jazz influences of such Native Tongues-affiliates as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and the Afrocentric stylings of Brand Nubian and X Clan, the album roughly delineates the end of golden age hip hop (1988–1996) and the emergence of Mafioso rap, which flourished during the mid-1990s following the release of Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... (1995).[90][91] Yet as music journalist Adam Heimlich writes, "In 1994, there appeared likely to be more money (and definitely more cultural rewards) in working with Arrested Development or Digable Planets."[80] Although the album contains strong elements of jazz rap and alternative hip hop, Steve Huey credits Illmatic with marking "the beginning of a shift away from Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap"[48] towards future hardcore hip hop artists such as Raekwon and Mobb Deep. Furthermore, Adam Heimlich writes: "[Nas] came on the scene as hardcore's golden child. Along with Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Mobb Deep all but invented 90s New York rap, back when the notion of an 'East Coast gangsta' still meant Schoolly D or Kool G. Rap. Those three ... designed the manner and style in which New York artists would address what Snoop and Dre had made rap's hottest topics: drugs and violence."[80]

Hip hop artists

Many respected mainstream and underground rappers have acknowledged Illmatic's influence. These wide range of artists include the battle rappers, SunN.Y.[92] and Reef The Lost Cauze,[93] Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and Saigon, the producers Just Blaze and Alchemist, as well as the platinum-selling rappers Eminem and The Game, who makes references to the album on his debut, The Documentary. In his collaboration with Nas, "Hustlers", The Game made another ode towards Illmatic: "1995, eleven years from the day/I'm in the record shop with choices to make/Illmatic on the top shelf, The Chronic on the left, homie/Wanna cop both but only got a twenty on me/So fuck it, I stole both, spent the twenty on a dub-sack/Ripped the package of Illmatic and bumped that/For my niggas it was too complex when Nas rhymed/I was the only Compton nigga with a New York State of Mind".[94] Underground hip hop artist Fashawn released his mixtape Ode to Illmatic to "pay homage, ’cause Illmatic was one of them kinda albums that really impacted my life”.[95]

Lyrics from Illmatic have also been sampled by other rappers, including Big L's "Ebonics" (which samples "It Ain't Hard to Tell"), Miilkbone's "Keep It Real" (which samples "Life's a Bitch"), Real Live's "Real Live Shit" (which samples "It Ain't Hard to Tell"), and most notably, Blu & Exile's "In Remembrance" (which samples "The World Is Yours" and "One Love") and Jay-Z's "Rap Game/Crack Game" (which samples "Represent") and "Dead Presidents II" (which samples "The World Is Yours"). Common's critically acclaimed album Be (2005) has been said to have been molded after Illmatic.[96][97][98] On XXL's website, Illmatic was featured in a list of acclaimed hip hop albums, compiled by Clipse. Malice, a member of the hip hop duo, claimed: "Illmatic captured the whole New York state of mind for me. It embraced everything I knew New York to be. The album had 10 songs, all of them flawless. Me and my homies got great memories of rolling around listening to that, huslin', smokin', chillin'. That embodied everything that was right with hip-hop. That CD never came out my deck."[71]

Subsequent work by Nas

While Illmatic's success helped Nas's infant career immeasurably, hip hop aficionados have cited it as his inextricable "gift and curse".[16][20] Due to the critical fame of his debut, Nas's subsequent studio albums have been weighed against Illmatic, despite all of them outselling his debut.[16] Against this standard, they are often critically deemed as mediocre follow-ups.[20] After manager Steve Stoute convinced Nas to aim his efforts in a more commercial direction for his follow-up album It Was Written (1996), he enlisted the production team Trackmasters, who were known for their mainstream work at the time.[3] Despite receiving criticism for a stylistic change to gangsta, mafiaso themes and materialistic subject matter, the album proved to be a commercial success, selling over 3 million copies.[3] However, it received mixed reviews, and general consensus was that it failed to live up to the classic status of Illmatic.[99] Many fans of Illmatic labeled Nas's subsequent efforts as 'selling out', due to his crossover sensibilities (e.g. his participation with the hip hop group The Firm) and his radio-friendly hits aimed at the pop charts, such as "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" (1996) and "Hate Me Now" (1999).[3]

When he released his third and fourth studio albums, I Am… and Nastradamus (1999), which underwent editing due to bootlegging of the recording sessions,[3] many fans and critics feared that his career was deteriorating, as both albums received further criticism for their commercially-oriented sound.[3] Reflecting this widespread perception in the hip hop community and adding to his ongoing feud with Nas at the time, Jay-Z mocked him in the song "Takeover" (2001) for having a "one hot album [Illmatic] every ten year average".[100] Nas, however, made something of a comeback with his fifth album Stillmatic (2001) and the acclaimed follow-up God's Son (2002), as well as The Lost Tapes (2002), a compilation of previously unreleased tracks from the I Am… and Nastradamus sessions.[3] Afterwards, his subsequent albums tended to receive more positive reviews, including Street's Disciple (2004) and his untitled ninth album (2008).[101][102] Nevertheless, most fans have regarded Illmatic as his definitive album.[20]

Track listing

# Title Performer(s) Producer(s) Samples[103] Recorded Length
1 "The Genesis"
  • "Live at the Barbeque" by Main Source
  • "Subway Theme" by DJ Grand Wizard Theodore
  • "Train Sequence" by Geoffrey Sumner
1993 1:45
2 "N.Y. State of Mind"
  • Nas
DJ Premier 1992 4:54
3 "Life's a Bitch"
  • First verse/chorus: AZ
  • Second verse: Nas
L.E.S., Nas (co.) 1993 3:30
4 "The World Is Yours" Pete Rock 1992 4:50
5 "Halftime"
  • Nas
Large Professor
  • "Dead End" from the Hair Japanese cast original soundtrack
  • "Soul Travelin'" by Gary Byrd
  • "School Boy Crush" by Average White Band
1992 4:20
6 "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"
  • Nas
DJ Premier 1992 4:08
7 "One Love"
  • Verses: Nas
  • Chorus: Q-Tip
Q-Tip 1992 5:25
8 "One Time 4 Your Mind"
  • Nas
Large Professor 1992 3:18
9 "Represent"
  • Nas
DJ Premier 1993 4:12
10 "It Ain't Hard to Tell"
  • Nas
Large Professor 1992 3:22

2004 edition bonus tracks

In 2004, a 10th Anniversary Edition of Illmatic contained a second disc of additional songs.

# Title Producer(s) Samples Length
1 "Life's a Bitch" (Remix) (feat. AZ) Rockwilder 3:00
2 "The World Is Yours" (Remix) Vibesmen
  • "I Love You" by Kenny Rankin
  • "At My Most Beautiful" by R.E.M.
3:56
3 "One Love" (Remix) Nick Fury 5:09
4 "It Ain't Hard to Tell" (Remix) Nick Fury 3:26
5 "On the Real" Marley Marl 3:26
6 "Star Wars" Large Professor 4:08

Personnel

  • Anton "Sample This" Pushansky – engineer
  • Q-Tip – producer
  • Kevin Reynolds – engineer
  • Pete Rock – producer
  • Eddie Sancho – engineer
  • Jamey Staub – engineer
  • Louis Tineo – assistant engineer
  • Jason Vogel – engineer
  • Stan Wallace – engineer
  • Aimee Macauley – art director
  • Danny Clinch – photography

Charts

Album

Charts (1994)[104] Peak
position
U.S. Billboard 200 12
U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums 2

Singles

Year Single Peak positions[46]
Billboard Hot 100 Hot R&B Singles Hot Rap Tracks Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales
1993 "Halftime" 8
1994 "It Ain't Hard to Tell" 91 57 13 3
"The World Is Yours" 114 67 27 6
"Life's a Bitch"
"One Love" 106 24 6
"—" denotes a release that did not chart.

Certifications

Country Certifications
(sales thresholds)
Shipments
United States (RIAA) Platinum[105] 1,000,000
Canada (CRIA) Gold[47] 50,000

Accolades

The information regarding accolades attributed to Illmatic is adapted from AcclaimedMusic.net.[65]

Publication Country Accolade Year Rank
About.com United States 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Albums [106] 2008 1
Best Rap Albums of 1994[107] 2008 1
10 Essential Hip-Hop Albums[108] 2008 1
Blender 500 CDs You Must Own Before You Die 2003 *
ego trip Hip Hop's 25 Greatest Albums by Year 1980-98 1999 1
Ink Blot Albums of the 90s 2002 11
MTV The Greatest Hip Hop Albums of All Time [109] 2005 2
Music Underwater Top 100 Albums 1990-2003 2004 45
Pitchfork Media Top 100 Favorite Records of the 1990s 2003 33
Robert Dimery 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die 2006 *
Rolling Stone The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time 2003 400
The Essential Recordings of the 90s 1999 *
The Source 100 Best Rap Albums[77] 1998 *
The Critics Top 100 Black Music Albums of All Time[74] 2006 5
Spin Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years 2005 17
Stylus Top 101-200 Albums of All time 2004 143
Tom Moon 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die[110] 2008 *
Vibe 51 Albums representing a Generation, a Sound and a Movement 2004 *
Top 10 Rap Albums[24] 2002 4
Village Voice Albums of the Year 2000 33
Hip Hop Connection United Kingdom Top 100 Readers Poll[75] 2003 3
Mojo Mojo 1000, the Ultimate CD Buyers Guide 2001 *
NME Albums of the Year 1994 33
The New Nation Top 100 Albums by Black Artists 2004 5
Select Albums of the Year 1994 18
The 100 Best Albums of the 90s 1996 99
Juice Australia The 100 (+34) Greatest Albums of the 90s 1999 101
Exclaim! Canada 100 Records That Rocked 100 Issues 2000 *
Les Inrockuptibles France 50 Years of Rock'n'Roll 2004 *
Spex Germany Albums of the Year 1994 9
Juice The Hundred Most Influential Rap Albums Ever 2002 4
OOR Netherlands Albums of the Year 1994 42
VPRO 299 Nominations of the Best Album of All Time 2006 *
The Movement New Zealand The 101 Best Albums of the 90s 2004 51
Dance de Lux Spain The 25 Best Hip-Hop Records 2001 25
Rock de Lux The 150 Best Albums from the 90s 2000 134
Pop Sweden Albums of the Year 1994 9
(*) designates lists that are unordered.

Notes

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References

  • Martin Torgoff (2004). Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-743-25863-0. 
  • Oliver Wang, Dante Ross (2003). Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide. ECW Press. ISBN 1-550-22561-8. 
  • Ashyia N. Henderson (2008). Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community. Vol. 33. Gale Research International. ISBN 0-787-65914-2. 
  • Sacha Jenkins; et al. (December 1999). Ego Trip's Book of Rap Lists. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 352. ISBN 0-312-24298-0. 
  • Mickey Hess (2007). Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture. Edition: illustrated. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-313-33904-X.  ISBN 0-31333-902-3
  • Todd Boyd (2004). The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop. NYU Press. ISBN 0-814-79896-9. 
  • Nathan Brackett, Christian Hoard, ed (November 1, 2004). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Completely Revised and Updated 4th Edition. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-0169-8. 
  • Kool Moe Dee.; Chuck D. (November 2003). There's a God on the Mic. Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 1-56025-533-1. 
  • Alan Light; et al. (October 1999). The Vibe History of Hip Hop. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-609-80503-7. 

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