Every genre has its defining albums. About 20 years ago, on April 19, 1994, New York rapper Nas released his album first studio album, “Illmatic.” Any true fan of hip-hop knows that this album is a blueprint for East Coast hip-hop. In the same way Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is a picturesque grunge rock album, or the way “London Calling” shaped punk music, “Illmatic” is the classic East Coast hip hop record.
And “Illmatic” deserves every ounce of acclaim it has received. It’s a beautiful and dark look at Queensbridge Houses in New York. “The Bridge,” as it’s often referred to, is the largest housing project in America. Nas delicately and precisely creates a powerful rush of emotion that is never trite, or too ethereal. It’s poetic, but maintains its credibility by portraying the true image of New York City. With this album, Nas became an icon of rap and lyricism.
On his first studio album, Nas proves why he is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. Some of his lyrics are quoted so often they have become cliché. His style was vastly different than any other rappers at his time, because Nas created the style of rapping that could be both fast-paced and serious. He could maintain aggression while still being detailed, and he alluded to the struggle of living in poverty. His lyrics throughout the album are brutally honest and violent, while being intelligent and complex, too. There is no rapper who is more conscious and poetic to describe the intricate struggle of living in the projects. For many fans of hip hop, Nas’s lyrical technique on this album should make him a poet laureate.
The album is also a perfect example of the sound of rap. It wonderfully combines the traditional “boom bap” sound of the time with avant-garde jazz notes sprinkled throughout. The track “Life’s a Bitch” has a cornet solo from his father, Olu Dara, a jazz musician. It samples from a variety of soul and funk artists well.
There is a strange feeling that occurs when listening to this album that is really only found on album’s like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Somehow, with the vocals or the drums, the album has an ineffable feeling of nostalgia.
I don’t think there is an album I listened to more in high school than “Illmatic.” It remains in my life, shaping my taste in music and my outlook on life. It’s not just the hard-hitting angry album I once saw it as. “Illmatic” is the diary of a young man trapped and tortured by his surroundings. Nas seems much older on this album than I am, and yet, Nas recorded “Illmatic” when he was 19 years old. The dark truth is that it is a portrait of a teenager pained by the inescapable poverty and violence that drives most to crime or drug addiction. With each listen, I become more aware of the rawness and purity of his inspiration. This album captures rarely seen tragedy with such beauty that is demanding of the attention of all those consider themselves fans of music and poetry.
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