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Nas - Illmatic (Throwback Album Review)

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

Today's throwback review is of what many consider the greatest rap album of all time - Nas' 1994 debut album 'Illmatic'. At just 20 years old, Nas shook the rap game when he released this classic album full of complex lyrics and incredible beat selection (for the time). The album to this day is an example of how fine lyricism can be and for Nas this album was so good that his follow ups were all disappointments to an extent as he was never able to top this classic.

Let's start with the obvious - which is that in terms of pure hip-hop and technical ability it is arguably the best album to have ever been created. The lyricism is complex, clever and razor sharp with incredibly high levels of intelligent wordplay found throughout the album. His flow is great and also his story telling ability shines throughout this. The production is classic boom bap - slightly outdated at times but still good (especially the light piano keys appearing all throughout the album). The subject matter is very focused on growing up in the projects of New York and he creates such a vivid image all throughout the album of his street life. Despite all it's praise - the only thing that stops this album being perfect is it's not an album I always come back to and other modern albums have more replay value to them and more to them than just rap.

To get through the tracks, the first proper song we're introduced to is 'N.Y. State of Mind' - one of raps most iconic songs ever. Here, as it's his first song off his debut we learn about Nas' upbringing in Queensbridge, New York and the struggles he had to endure. While explaining the struggles of his upbringing, he flows over the beat so well and with the perfect delivery to match the boom-bap instrumental. The beat to be specific is incredible with the low tone of the drums and bass-line contradicting the melody of the piano perfectly that is almost just a flick every couple of bars. The second track off the album is 'Life's a Bitch' which introduces us to our first features AZ & NAS' father Olu Dara who gave us a really nice jazzy outro. AZ's verse is incredible as he focuses on getting money as we all die using nice complex lyricism such as "Even though we know, somehow we all gotta go//But as long as we leavin' thievin'//We'll be leavin' with some kind of dough". Flow and rhyme scheme is impeccable as well. Nas then comes in with a more positive verse about a similar topic but has a more reminiscent verse looking at how he used to make money "Robbin' foreigners, take they wallets, they jewels and rip they green cards". Both solid verses but AZ's is just something special. Hook is simplistic yet nice, production also good too - 2 for 2 on the album at this point.

'The World Is Yours' is the third track off the album and keeps NAS at 3 for 3 at this stage. He keeps up with the themes of street life and growing up New York with his clever lyricism and hard wordplay that keeps you interested for the whole song. Production doesn't stand out here but it doesn't have to because Nas is providing entertainment just by what he's saying. On 'Halftime' we see a more braggadocios track from Nas as he uses his bouncy flow and crafty lyrics to create another great song. Lyricism is on display this track especially with some of the metaphors he uses, "And now in every jam I'm the fuckin' man//I rap in front of more n***** than in the slave ships". On 'Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)' he well...takes us on a trip down memory lane reminiscing about his past. The beats nice here and yet again it's them light piano keys doing the business. It's near perfect again when it comes to skill - it's the best I've heard his flow all album and his rhyme scheme is unbelievable. The next song 'One Love' is a real highlight for me on this album. The first two verses are letters to his friends locked up while the third signals he's fed up with having to send letters and is trying to stop a twelve year old drug dealer from getting the same fate - it's a really good showcase of story telling. His flow again is beyond belief - it's rap perfection. Q-Tip's hook is a nice interlude in between all the verses to let it sink in. Following that track we have the first song I can find issues on which is ‘One Time 4 Your Mind’. While it's still lyrically great and his flow glides effortlessly through the song - it's the beat I find an issue with. The light strings used create a sound I could imagine being used in a Scooby Doo episode and I think this song was missing them piano keys which helped the production be as good as it could be throughout the rest of the album. The hook is fine and overall I don't dislike the track I can just find faults in it.

‘Represent’ represents the penultimate track…see what I did there… no? Well anyway the piano’s are back creating a nice beat but I can’t say anything else because I’m just repeating myself. It’s just another great rap song .The finale to this classic is three verses interrupted by no hook titled 'It Ain't Hard to Tell'. The first verse features a never ending flow which goes hard but eventually this does steady (which isn't a problem). The track features him lyrically flexing over a sample of Michael Jackson's 'Human Nature' which sounds fantastic and is a highlight of the album. This is a solid end to a solid project.

Now, I don't think any song (bar 'N.Y. State of Mind') is an actual amazing, re-playable, top 20 song - they're all just solid and consistent in their qualities. It's not far from perfect and in terms of hip-hop albums it is perfect - Nas changed the rap game with this album and it's clear to see why it's called the Bible of hip-hop nowadays. You guys want anymore Nas albums reviewed just let me know in the comments and I'll get on it.

FAVOURITE TRACKS: N.Y. State of Mind, Life’s a Bitch, The World Is Yours, Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park), One Love, Represent, It Ain’t Hard to Tell



*REVISED SCORE: Review may not match favourite tracks and overall rating because I've since re-listened and changed my score.*

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