With this series, I’ll try to shed some light on some of the best (and worst) of hip-hop. My goal is to look at some of the most important albums of all time and highlight some of hip-hop’s greatest musical moments while examining some of its biggest disappointments and debunking the hype. If you have suggestions for albums to cover as a part of this series, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
So, let’s get on with it.
And what better way to get on with it than with one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time: Illmatic!
Released originally on April 19, 1994, the debut album from Nas stands up as one of the classic rap recordings of the 1990s and one of the greatest albums, rap or otherwise, of all time. Illmatic was produced by Large Professor of Main Source, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and DJ Premier.
The most striking thing about Illmatic is its content. On track after beautiful track, Nas spits fire about poverty, culture, and the hopelessness found on the streets. Just 19-years-old when Illmatic dropped, Nas shows wisdom beyond his years with his first-person tackling of the inner city plot. A voice for the disenfranchised youth left for dead after Reaganomics brutalized the world he knew, Nas, this kid, took the torch and spoke for the people in ways that few had experienced before.
Nas reports violence and the authenticity of the streets without glorifying it or stagnating in it. He is a voice of optimism, but also a voice of truth. He echoes the gunshots without lionizing them, stepping beyond the hallucination of cruel splendor and into the limelight of a master raconteur.
With Illmatic, Nas became known to the world not just as a great rapper but as a stern technician of prose. His mastery over wordplay, multifarious rhyme patterns, and language helped take the record to another level. His inability to compromise gave tracks like “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” an innate flow almost unprecedented in hip-hop and his swift release brought things to another level.
Also noteworthy is the production of Illmatic. The record is simplistically produced, which gives Nas’ lyrics a hard place to fall. This is the sound of the streets, often quite plainly, and the production fits the bill on each track with resolute devotion. The beats are severe and the scratches are never invasive. Sampling is done in moderation.
It should also be noted that Illmatic was one of the first hip-hop albums to feature such an all-star cast of producers, representing a trend that is going strong to almost-excessive lengths today.
With on-point production and stellar lyricism, it’s hard to find a better album than Illmatic. Nas’ sturdy and careless delivery smoulders all over the record, taking over classic tracks like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “Halftime” with his persistent level-headedness and lethal attention to detail.
1994 was a big year for hip-hop on the East Coast. Biggie’s classic debut Ready to Die was also dropped and the East Coast sound started to challenge the G-funk on the West Coast. It was a compelling time, to say the least, but Illmatic still stands strong as one of the greatest of that era and as one of the greatest albums of all time.