In a decade full to the brim with great hip hop albums, Illmatic deserves to rank alongside the very best. Released in 1994 – a time when hip-hop was dominated by the g-funk sounds of west coast artists such as Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre – Illmatic helped to cast everyone’s attention back to New York and ignite the renaissance of the city’s hip hop scene.
Nas enlisted the help of a number of producers for the album including DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. The beats are hard but a heavy sampling of jazz and funk melodies provides the album with an accessibility that has endeared it to many. This production masterclass proved to be the perfect platform for Nas’ street poetry. Employing polysyllabic rhymes, highly intelligent wordplay and his own expansive lexicon, Nas persistently excels himself as a lyricist throughout the album. Highly complex rhymes never compromise immaculate flow as the listener accompanies Nas on a journey through his gritty and often extremely bleak streets of Queensbridge, New York. No track illustrates this better than ‘N.Y. State of Mind’. Over a dark and jazzy DJ Premier beat Nas informs the listener “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death”. Yet despite the tough realities of Queensbridge – gang violence, drug addiction and urban decay – a sense of lingering hope still permeates the album. Nas isn’t slating his environment; he’s merely telling it how it is.
Illmatic isn’t without its critics, with many claiming it lacks the length and thus the depth of hip-hop’s other great works. Clocking in at less than forty minutes it’s definitely not the longest but Illmatic retains a focus and coherency rare in all but the best hip hop albums. The phrase “all killer, no filler” has never been more apt. When asked in an early promotional interview to explain the album title, Nas claimed it meant “the ultimate”. It’s a bold title to bestow on your debut release but, when the listening experience is as consistently excellent as this, who are we to disagree?