It’s a little crazy just how much Illmatic has stuck with me. As long as an album is decent, I’ll play it repeatedly for a week or two. The real test of how great an album is (for me) is how long after that I keep listening to it. It has been years since I first heard Illmatic, but there’s never really been a period of time where I stopped listening to the album for a while — I still put it on a few times every week. Whenever I’m not really sure what I want to listen to, I always turn to this album since it’s short (~40 minutes) and somehow never gets old.
After an intro track that I’m indifferent to (The Genesis, which samples the great Live at the Barbeque), the album just shifts into overdrive and never lets up the rest of the way. The first real song on Illmatic is the DJ Premier-produced “NY State of Mind“. DJ Premier has made some of the best beats in hip-hop (Ex – 1234567) and is without a doubt the best producer in hip-hop’s history. Combine that with one of the best rappers to ever live (Nas) and good things happen. Premier’s beat (which almost sounds like something that should be in a Doom game) doesn’t overpower Nas in any way; the beat remains in the background and allows the rapping to take the spotlight. “I never sleep, because sleep is the cousin of death” is one of the most well-known lines in rap, and it originated here. Despite all of the good things I’ve said about this song, it’s probably one of my least favorite tracks on the album. Still, I don’t know what else on the album would have been better at opening it up. This song shows you what Illmatic is going to be about.
Up next is the LES and Nas-produced “Life’s a Bitch“, which is the only song on the album that doesn’t have a big-name producer attached to it. Perhaps surprisingly because of the name, this song sounds more relaxing than anything else on the album. This is also the only tack on Illmatic to have a real guest appearance (though Pete Rock adds some vocals to the hook of “The World is Yours” and Q-Tip does the hook for “One Love”) — AZ does the first verse on this, which ended up being a great choice because AZ is one of the very few rappers who can hold his own and be on the same level as Nas. People argue about who had a better verse all the time, and if you ask me AZ actually outperforms Nas here. This is definitely one of my 2 favorite songs on the album, but I’m not sure if I’d put it at #1. Possibly the most well-known song on Illmatic comes next, the Pete Rock-produced “The World is Yours“. DJ Premier is the best hip-hop producer ever, and if you ask me Pete Rock is #2. This has some of the best rapping on the entire album; Nas’ flow here is outstanding.
The fifth track on this ten-track album is the appropriately-named “Halftime” produced by Large Professor. The two songs that come before it are fairly relaxing, and this is a pretty huge change of pace. The beat here is a little overpowering; the amount of bass used in Halftime is ridiculous. Still, it doesn’t ruin the song; it fits really well with Nas’ in-your-face attitude on this. After Halftime comes the second of three DJ Premier-produced tracks, Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park). Again, Premier gives Nas a beat that isn’t overpowering and just lets Nas steal the show. This isn’t your typical Premo beat, but it’s still very good. This song really just shows off how great of a lyricist Nas can be; he uses so many references and so much slang that a lot of it can just go over your head.
The only storytelling song on Illmatic, “One Love” is next. It’s produced by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, who also does the chorus. It’s interesting to hear Q-Tip’s beat because it sounds pretty different from most of the beats ATCQ had. Even though he wasn’t the main producer in A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip proves here that he’s a very good one. As for the rapping, the lyricism here is better than in most storytelling hip-hop songs. I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but to me it seems like this influenced Eminem in making “Stan“. Although the song content is different, the way both of them use their superb lyricism with a soft hook while dealing with a serious issue are pretty similar. The worst song on the album is next, the Large Professor-produced “One Time 4 Your Mind“….even though it’s my least favorite song here, it would be my favorite on a lot of other albums. I would still probably give it a 10. The beat is good but nothing amazing. The rapping is very good, as it has been for the rest of the album. However, I’m not a huge fan of the chorus; it’s a little boring.
The third and final DJ Premier song comes in as the second to last track on the album, and “Represent” is the best of the three songs he did on the album. To get an idea of how ridiculous DJ Premier is as a producer, he really went digging for this sample. He took music from a relatively obscure movie made in 1940 (the sampled part starts at 0:54) and made it the main sample in this song….the result is a beat that is probably the best on the album. As for the rapping, I’m starting to sound like a broken record here. Nas is great, and his delivery on this song is really great. Finally, all Nas does to close out the album is make one of the ten best rap songs in history with the Large Professor-produced “It Ain’t Hard to Tell“. The Michael Jackson sample (somehow) works PERFECTLY for the beat. This is braggadocio rap at its finest.
There are 9 songs on here and an intro, and I’d give a 10/10 to every song on the album. The fact that Nas was a teenager and in his very early 20s when recording this album is a little insane; that’s roughly the same age Soulja Boy is now, and when Nas was that age he released the best hip-hop album ever recorded. Soulja Boy, um, hasn’t. 10/10