20th Anniversary of Illmatic – the best Hip-Hop Album Ever

Apr 19 2014 BY Gerald Onyango
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. I’m really not going to delve too deep with this as honestly there’s so much that can be said about this album. I titled this post as Illmatic being the best hip-hop album ever and rightly so I can’t imagine many disputing that – while Illmatic isn’t my favourite hip-hop album – it is still indisputably the greatest hip-hop album ever.

It’s both a gift and a curse that I get to review or should I say shed my thoughts on the album, twenty years on. As now I’m plagued by the curse of it already being labelled as a masterpiece and having the GOAT status it now has. But it’s too a gift, as had, I had the opportunity to review it when it first dropped (I was like 1 and half years when it was released) I would have probably been too scared to say how good it really was/is. We’re all aware the cruelty of hip-hop as its such a nostalgic genre of music when you heap praise to something new it’s often greeted with much displeasure, especially if you say an album is the best of all time or within a shout of being the best.

The key things to note about the album – that it was pretty revolutionary in terms of its structure. We’re talking about a time where the production of an album was handled by one person it was solely produced in-house, artists rarely sought the help of other producers. However, with Nas he was blessed with a super-group of producers – easily the best producers in New York at the time –  DJ Premier, Pete Rock, the Large Professor, Q-Tip and L.E.S. Usually working with so many gifted producers tends to effect the cohesiveness in both constructing the album and the output – but in this case, it worked beautifully.
Another feat that’s not often mentioned enough is the album is relatively short, especially for a hip-hop album – just 10 songs-long. I think of the often said quality, not quantity can be used here, as no song falls short, they’re all near perfect their own way, perhaps more of the same would have become monotonous and probably would have dampened the album’s overall quality. Hey, let’s not forget the best-selling album in music history only had 9 songs (that’s MJ’s, Thriller),  which in itself says something.



Looking at the album, its a perfect blend of what a hip-hop album should sound like. Nas’ lyrical ability on the album, is of course, the album’s strength, he had/has this ability to be so deep but not too abstract, finding the exact right medium with his lyrics. While we are all aware Nas is arguably the best lyricist, it’s best exhibited here – he’s conscious without trying to change your opinion like a conscious rapper would, his ultimate aim is quite literally to show you what the “New York State of Mind” is. I mean I’m 21, from Croydon in South London, but when I listen to Illmatic, I’m instantly teleported to Queensbridge, New York. And, it is his ability to detail his surrounding through a matter of  just rhyming words that does that, you can just feel what life must have been like in Queensbridge in the late ’80s/’90s.It’s the simplicity but depth to his lyrics that I love, like – “It drops deep as it does in 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”. He mirrors the city that never sleeps but not for joy that we’re often presented, but a city that is rife with the crime so you can’t afford to sleep otherwise you’ll ultimately die. The satire of his New York life being a city of crime as opposed to what it’s often known for of being the city of opportunity is seriously brilliant. Then, you just have clever whitty lyrics – “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/That’s like Malcolm X catching the Jungle Fever”. That doesn’t need explaining it’s just really clever to be honest. Let’s not forget – I switched the motto/instead of saying fuck tomorrow/that buck that bought a bottle/could a struck the lotto. I think this line best explains my thoughts on Nas’ lyrical ability and his resonance in hip-hop today – while he’s philosophising, he does it in a way that everyone can relate to, I mean despite any background you reside from you can all relate to this line – the lotto is a metaphor for good fortune in the future – something we can all relate to, just love it.

Nas’ is lyrics are perfectly laced with the production he was benefited with. The samples used, the beats, the loops were all perfectly chosen and created to provide a sonic presentation of New York. The Chords on “The World is Yours” by Pete Rock to portray the darkness of Queensbridge, the hypnotic bounce on “Represent” by Premier, the ever so jazzy crescendo on “One Love” by Q- Tip and the rawness of “Half-Time” by Large Professor. The production just creates a myriad of sounds that complement the picture that Nas’ is trying to make of New York.
With that being said – Illmatic is now the blueprint of what not only a great hip-hop album should sound like but how a great album should sound like, ultimately. It completely changed hip-hop, to the point where you look at hip-hop as pre-Illmatic and post-Illmatic. I think the legacy it’s brought to hip-hop is un-measurable, it’s the album that people who don’t like hip-hop actually like, it’s so good that’s genreless it’s just a great composition of music.
Happy 20th birthday Illmatic!