Album That Changed My Life: Nas’s IllmaticAlbum That Changed My Life: Nas’s matic
Associate Arts and Entertainment Editor
When I first started high school, my taste in music was unformed and shallow like most other kids at some point in their lives. Radio and television were my sources of entertainment. Good or bad, I’d always come around to a song if it received enough burn. I could say I preferred rap, yet I never went beyond what was presented to me. I’d get ready for school with Hot 97 in the background and watch videos on BET when I got home; I wasn’t hooked to the Internet and its vast resource of music blogs and sites yet. I had a friend of mine, a kid who probably just heard Illmatic for the first time himself, try to school me on rap by tossing me a few burned CDs. As annoyingly righteous as he was about “real hip hop,” I couldn’t turn down free music.
I first listened to The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die and thought it was average. I latched onto a few tracks but the rest of the album sounded dated and boring to me. When I received a copy of the much-heralded debut of Nas, Illmatic, I expected to hate it. As far as I knew, Nas was the musical equivalent of eating vegetables: an artist I was supposed to like no matter how bland his music was. I held off on listening to the album, and instead reverted back to my television and radio routine.
When I finally put on Illmatic, however, my reaction to it was one that I’d never had for any other album. I usually listen to an album and wait a few years for its entirety to be etched into my brain before championing it as something great. But Illmatic felt important from the jump. From the burning intensity of “N.Y. State of Mind” to the M.J.-sampling victory lap of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” Illmatic was a moving experience; no album has ever clicked with me like it did.
I’d never heard such fluidity and liveliness in music before. I was used to the big budget sophistication of more contemporary rap productions, but was instantly drawn to Illmatic’s sparse sound. Illmatic’s beats have a soul behind their simplicity that makes synth-laden beats sound heartless in comparison.
I was struck by the way Nas could weave together touches of innocence and criminality, and paint the Queensbridge projects as a place of both horror and comfort—sometimes within the same track. On “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” Nas embraces past local drug dealers and mid-90s knuckleheads while describing the foul, murderous nature of his area that those very criminals helped feed. Nas knows how to draw tragedy without that self-awareness ever feeling academic. His line, “love committing sins and my friends sell crack,” from “Represent” best displays his close-outsider approach to writing and the dimensions of his personality.
The production credits laid the groundwork for what I’d be listening to obsessively over the next few years: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor. Illmatic’s production was part of the 90s’ rap tradition of basically slapping together a few samples with little sound manipulation. As lazy as that sounds, Illmatic’s producers created space for Nas’ street narrative and heightened the atmosphere of that narrative. The hazy piano keys on “The World Is Yours” alone creates the image of a hot summer day on the block in the listener’s mind.
I’d eventually plow through the rest of Nas’ catalog and find myself disappointed with the path his career took. From selling out with awkward pop songs to consistently rocking tepid beats, Nas couldn’t get it together for another great release. Illmatic was enough, though. From there, I’d play catch-up with rap, finding gems from its past before moving onto other genres with the same enthusiasm.