Nas’ Illmatic is the Greatest Hiphop album of all time, period. Writer sits down, opens laptop, exhales deeply. He writes: ‘Illmatic, the greatest hiphop album of all time’. “Word it’s time, I don’t know how to start this shit”, the words said by Nas before dropping one of the most precious gems of hiphop ‘NY State of Mind’, resonate deeply with me as I begin to write this review.

Illmatic is Nas’ first studio album and is considered by many as the ‘bible’ of hiphop and Nas’ best work. This album is iconic, better yet legendary, akin to mythological for hiphop fans, detailing and expressing the environment, stories, and challenges of the Queensbridge MC so vividly that you feel as though you are walking with Nas through those iconic NY projects. It’s a pure expression of music even if you hate the genre of hiphop(God forbid), you can’t fail to see the beauty of this album. Produced by various NY producers, DJ premier and Large Professor among others, it is truly a timeless record.

The first track, appropriately titled ‘Genesis’ samples Nas’ own verse from ‘Live at the barbeque’ as well as dialogue from a film. You hear the sound of a passing NewYork subway train, its rough metal body grinding against the tracks of the railway and then it cuts to Nas’ friends conversing.

Put the grants over there in the safe
fuck is that bullshit on the radio?

It serves to bring you into Nas’ world, the words of Nas and company though seemingly insignificant and even maybe mindless from their part actually help to bring you into the New York mindstate that Nas grew up with and which is a reality of his existence. Speaking of the new york mindstate, the second track is titled just that.

The second track ‘NY state of mind’ is a classic, purely east coast, super lyrical record produced by DJ Premier. The beat, subtle pianos key playing against the raw boom-bap kicks mixed by DJ premier sets the perfect stage for Nas’ systematic yet melodious flow with a constant tension which provides a pleasant albeit temporary catharthis at every rhyme. The track is a lyrical masterpiece to say the least. Nas hits you with killer rhymes and punchlines, every bar seeming to properly fit into the next.

‘A pain I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine’
‘holdin the M16 see with the pen I’m extreme’

Nas showcases his skill and word-play in a way that never seems forced due to his charismatic and calculated delivery and then he hits you with the now iconic line “I never sleep coz sleep is the cousin of death” which has influenced countless hiphop artists.

Nas’ storytelling is put on display as he narrates a cop shootout in dramatic fashion, at times hyperbole to be frank but serving to enhance the story and immerse the listener deeper into the story which for the most part isn’t very glamorous for the ones involved. I can’t stress it enough, Nas’ skill is simply excellent on this track from the get-go every word in one bar seems to rhyme with the second bar. Nas’ delivery stays fresh and even when the track begins to wear on a little too long, a sudden beat change keeps your ears hooked.

‘I woke up early on my bornday I’m 20 it’s a blessing
The essence of adolecense leaves my body now i’m fresh and
My physical frame is celebrated coz I made it’

Life’s A Bitch. AZ vs Nas: Who had the better verse? Though it’s not uncommon in hiphop for featured artists to outshine the main artist (cough,cough Drake — Forever ft. Eminem), I think the debate between AZ and Nas is a different case. Although AZ does go all out with a beautiful melodic verse, the follow up verse from Nas serves to balance the track well especially considering the different views expressed by both artists.

The premise for the song, bordering on existential is suprisingly quite up-beat. AZ reflects on the often unfair situation:

most are born in sayin ‘fuck who’s
the baddest a person’s status
depends on salary’.

He takes on a more hopeful tone as the verse goes on. He’s accepting of life because in the end as he states life’s a bitch and then you die. Nas takes on a happier approach, celebrating life. He says he switched his motto, instead of giving up on life and seeking release through alcohol and other drugs.

‘That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto’

The chorus which is sung by AZ combines the two contrasts of the song so beautifully and brings the whole song together in a way that is sad and uplifting at the same time.

“The world is yours” is beautiful! The calm and groovy chorus layered with Nas’ excellent flow and lyrcism, not to mention the excellent production make this song a true classic of hiphop and bears a perfection that is hard for me to put in words. The line “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” referencing the faces of presidents on American dollar bills has inspired rappers for decades from Joey Badass to Hova(Jay-Z) himself who sampled it on his first hit single “Dead presidents”. The line became so ubiquitous in rap verses that it now borders cliché for upcoming rappers.

“Halftime”, the 5th track, is a verbal barrage of killer rhymes, punchlines, and just straight dope lyrics. Being the 5th of ten tracks, the title explains itself despite the song having been released 3 years prior to the making of illmatic, as a single. The beat is rough and employs the signature boombap kicks with a few jazz instruments to bring some groove and constrast to the more raw sound of the bass kicks. It sounds informal and relaxed and puts more emphasis on bars. “I set it off with my own rhyme cause I’m as ill as a convict who kills for phone time”. The rhymes seem to be endless and it flows so smoothly. The rugged delivery is reminiscent of a freestyle in the park or the corner.

The 6th track presents a Nas reminiscing about his life and the friends he lost. Although the nostalgic quality isn’t as thoroughly exploited by Nas as it could have been, the beat fills in the gap quite well with some sampled vocals that seem to carry you to the QB projects to find Nas and his crew “chillin on the block with cognac on strapped”. Nas talks about the ones he lost and his experiences growing up. It’s somewhat vague at some points but he does it just well enough to be satisfactory. Without a doubt though, the beat shines brightest on this track.

The track “One Love” is yet another classic on Illmatic. Nas combines poetry and storytelling to a level so compelling and vivid yet seemingly effortless that the track transcends music and takes on a cinematic calibre. Every scene narrated by Nas is so life-like that you begin to relate to characters you’ve never even met. Nas structures the track to depict himself writing to a friend who was incarcerated. The track opens with Nas’ friend in prison exclaiming to his jailmates “yo this a letter I got from my man Nas man, word is bond”

What up kid, I know shit is rough doin your bid
When the cops came you should’ve slid to my crib

Nas writes as one would to a close friend but does so with carefully placed rhymes and wordplay keeping you bobbing your head to the song all the while immersed in the story, a skill only found only in the best storytellers in rap. Nas conveys wisdom from places you wouldn’t think to look for it as he speaks to a kid who rants about his gangster conquests saying:

Nas, niggas caught me busting off the roof,
so I wear a bulletproof and pack black trey duce’

Nas tells his story with intelligence and poetry in a way that is so organic that you can’t really replicate it. The chorus is simple and samples the words “One love” looped in conjuction with the beat to brilliant effect. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling on a canvas made of a beautiful bass-kick beat with layers of altered piano notes in the backdrop.

The 8th track “One Time 4 Your Mind” is a mellow record over a somewhat regular though thouroughy enjoyable boom-bap beat produced by Large professor in which Nas is freestyling showing off his skill. We hear Grand Wizard hype him up throughout the song.

Hey yo, Nas? Fuck that, man. That shit is phat
But kick that for them gangstas, fuck all that!

Nas walks over the beat smoothly dropping lyrical bombs on his way and traversing topics of his daily life of his various conquests.

I try to stay mellow, rock, well a cappella rhymes’ll
Make me richer than a slipper made Cinderella, fella

“Represent” quite literally represents the essence of Nas and Queensbridge hiphop as a whole. It features a unique beat courtesy of DJ Premier with an intensity to it that is magnified when we hear a mob shout out the chorus as the track begins. The devil is in the details on this track and it brings the whole track to life. Nas holds nothing back. The track shows of his fast delivery and the clever punchlines which at this point we have come to get used to.

The tenth and final track “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” is a beautiful, timeless execution of production. Sampling Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, Large Professor fuses the beat together in a way only the best producers can. It’s an instantly recognizable tune the “dudada duduh dudada duduh” (recreated as best as I can) adds a layer of nostalgia to the track that works well with Nas’ calm delivery and smooth rhyming. Nas skill is on full display and he drops some of his most fluid and clever flows on the track. This track was released first to promote the album and found itself as the Revelations, so to speak, of this hiphop bible despite not being a very conclusive rendition. Nas leaves the door open in a way that signified his emergence onto the rap scene.

Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin’
Hit the Earth like a comet—invasion!
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half-man, half-amazin
Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell; it ain’t hard to tell

Bayingana is a visual artist, Design and Hiphop enthusiast.