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May 11, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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NAS – Illmatic (Columbia)

For those that don’t know, Nas was the prodigy of early 90s New York city. The hype started following his appearance on a Main Source single called Live at the Barbeque. He only got to spit one verse, but that didn’t matter. It was instantly deemed a classic, and for good reason:

“Street’s disciple, my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle/ Stampede the stage I leave the microphone split/Play Mr. Tuffy while I’m on some Pretty Tone shit/Verbal assassin my architect pleases/When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”

Nas was 17 when he recorded ‘Live at the Barbeque,’ but many of his trademarks, which would later resurface on Illmatic, were already on display—internal rhymes, violent ghetto imagery, religious references and a flow as smooth as the aluminium chassis of my MacBook. The secret lay in Nas’ clever phrasing, which he used to convert his meter into a nicely flowing 10-syllable pattern. As good as ‘Live at the Barbeque’ was, Nas took things to another level on Illmatic. By opting to MC over low-tempo beats he created space for extra syllables, and consequently was able to construct some of the most complex and dexterous rhyming schemes ever committed to tape. Compare these lines from ‘The World is Yours’ to ‘Live at the Barbeque’ for a sense of what I’m getting at:

“I sip the Dom P, watchin Gandhi til I’m charged/Then writin’ in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin/To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement/Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with”

On Illmatic, Nas’ flow became more complex, his use of internal rhymes more frequent (smooth shit/move with) and his meter more fluid. Lyrically, the album demonstrated a remarkable amount of maturity for a 19-year-old (Nas’ age for most of the recording process). Sure, Nas might have a had a different kind of vocabulary to Shakespeare, but that’s because he was speaking in the language of his native Queensbridge projects. After all, the guy dropped out of school at the age of 14, and literally grew up pushing drugs on street corners. At the age of 18 he had to deal with the experience of a close friend getting shot dead, and of his brother getting shot in the leg. Consequently, Nas’ ghetto memories lent colour to, and provided the foundations for, the stories told on Illmatic. And despite his gritty experiences (not to mention the resulting financial gain achieved as a result of some of the more nefarious ones), Nas never really glorified the violence either. Instead, he was able to see the world in terms more complex than black and white, than good and evil. Recounting the good times as well as the bad, Nas was always aware of his mortality. As a consequence, Illmatic can get pretty dark (“I never sleep/‘cause sleep is the cousin of death,” “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”), but thankfully Nas never quite lost hope. The turning point can be heard on ‘Life’s a Bitch’, where Nas paired down his future to four possible outcomes (“get rich from the game, end up in jail, get shot, or find a way out”):

“Now it’s all about cash in abundance, niggaz I used to run with/is rich or doin’ years in the hundreds/I switched my motto—instead of sayin’ fuck tomorrow/that buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto”

Fittingly, Illmatic would become the real- world manifestation of Nas’ metaphor—it really did end up being his avenue of escape, his “[buck] that struck the lotto.” Ironically, it also ended up looming like a monolith over everything else he’s done since. Nas would never again manage to consistently capture and bottle the inspiration that produced Illmatic. Jay-Z called him out for having “one good album every ten-year average,” and although Nas has since managed to disprove that thesis thanks to some solid post-millenial releases like God’s Son, The Lost Tapes and The Nigger Tape, Illmatic remains his only true classic. But what a classic it is. Sure, it doesn’t have the kind of stunning pop hooks you might find on The Blueprint or Late Registration, but it doesn’t have filler like ‘Girls, girls girls,’ or ‘Celebration’ either. Rather, Illmatic is more of a cerebral experience, with productions that serve to shine a spotlight on the lyrics, rather than to steal the show, and consequently, run the risk of relegating the MC to a placeholder on the verse and a hook-source for the chorus. The hidden defence (which, for some strange reason, Nas never employed during his beef with Jay) was that, when it comes to pure hip-hop lyricism, nobody has ever managed to top Illmatic.

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  1. Tristan says:

    Hey Kim, how come you didn’t mention Stillmatic while discussing Nas’ post-2000 comeback? Sure, it’s not as great an album as Illmatic – it’s neither as tight nor as laid-back and groovy – and the homophobia of ‘Ether’ (Jay Z’s “dick sucking lips”) is a bit appalling, while his refusal to kiss a girl who has just sucked his dick on ‘Rewind’ is just rude – but the political content of ‘Rule’ far surpasses in intellect anything on Illmatic. And, most importantly, ‘One Mic’ is the greatest hip hop track ever composed. Building up each of the first two verses from whisper to angry rant in line with the beat’s increase, then reversing on the third verse to pull in the audience by shifting from shout to whisper, completely overshadows every other rap in history for sheer power.

    Surely Stillmatic, and not God’s Son, really marked Nas’ comeback. Other than that, massive respect for a great analysis of a geat album, dude.

  2. Kim Wheatley says:

    Thanks Tristan, I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

    Re: Stillmatic.

    Lazy journalism on my part there, I basically just don’t like it quite as much as God’s Son (which is for me Nas’ most lyrical album), The Lost Tapes or the Nigger Tape.You definitely have a point about its significance as Nas’ key comeback album though, as it was huge given the surrounding context of his beef with Jay, but the thought slipped my mind at the time of writing.

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