There is a certain amount of irony in today’s selection, “Illmatic” by Nas, which is rated as album # 44 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, and the #2 Hip-Hop album of all time. The irony comes from the fact that despite its highly acclaimed status, and my love for good hip-hop music, prior to this day I have heard very little, if any from this album. It didn’t feature catchy pop-rap that prominently made its way into radio mixes with censored, watered-down versions. It is just very authentic New York City street rap, as Nas relayed his life growing up in the projects of Queens.
I have read several comparisons to Rakim in describing his style, and I think that is a fair comparison, and one that doesn’t come lightly from me. Working primarily with producer DJ Premier, as well as some production help and one vocal appearance from Q-Tip, this feels to me like the beginning of the deepening of the foundation of hip-hop as the fundamental soundtrack for many Americans, regardless of what was selling or charting. “Illmatic” wasn’t a huge commercial success, but the credibility, acclaim and popularity within this culture for Nas and this album far outreached the superficiality of Top 40 radio.
I listened to the album several times, and I enjoyed it front to back. “N.Y. State of Mind” sets the stage perfectly for the world Nas is opening us up to, and the next song “Life’s A Bitch”, which also features AZ, has an appearance from Nas’ father Olu Dara on cornet. The next song, “The World is Yours”, has a very 1960’s jazz feel to it, and of course I can’t help but think of the iconic reference to the blimp scene in Scarface when I hear this song.
“Halftime”, “One Love” (with Q-Tip on the recurring chorus)”, and “One Time 4 Your Mind” stand out on a smooth, overtly cool album of easy rhymes and one of the stronger thumping bass tracks I have heard to date. It isn’t hard for me to see why others love this album so much, and I’m happy to mix it in to my collection of playlists.