Monday, May 29, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #180 - Nas – Illmatic

Over the years as I have worked on and off at independent record stores, I’ve tried my best to learn more about music from my co-workers. In 2004, my assistant manager, Eric, doubled as the store’s hip-hop guru in addition to working as a producer on the side. After working together for a few months, I began a conversation with him about getting back into hip-hop after falling out of touch for a while. Eric’s guidance was key in helping me navigate the work of OutKast, Common, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Immortal Technique, just to name a few. After we had been talking about hip-hop for a while, I asked him if there were any other albums I should check out and he stated that Illmatic by Nas was his favorite hip-hop album of all time.

Since its release in 1994, Illmatic has won a fair amount of praise and credit, but somehow it just doesn’t seem like enough. A lot of other hip-hop albums from the mid-nineties tend to top lists for the decade’s best music, but none of those albums possess the integrity, cohesion, and flawless appeal of Illmatic. Following Eric’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of the album’s tenth anniversary edition and began exploring Nas’ astonishing, yet nuanced debut. “The Genesis” sets the stage for Nas’ storytelling on Illmatic by melding a clip of dialogue from the 1983 movie Wild Style with a conversation among Nas and his peers about life, music, and credibility. Aside from this slice of life introduction, the album flows seamlessly for forty minutes without any interruptions common to hip-hop albums of the era like skits and gags. Over the nine remaining tracks, Nas teams up with a group of producers including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip to deliver a singular approach to hip-hop that has aged far more gracefully than much of what was on the radio in 1994. The second track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” begins the album in earnest with a nearly breathless account of the world Nas sees around him. Nas pulls this point of view narrative into sharp focus with the kind of unforgettable wordplay that sets him apart from his peers. The line “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin,” blends imagery with psychology in a way that feels so intuitive, yet profoundly unique. Later on in the song, Nas establishes the theme of survival against all odds with the lyrics “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death” and “Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain and be prosperous.” Illmatic ends on an incredibly high note with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as Large Professor deconstructs Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and assembles new musical and rhythmic potential out of samples of various elements of the original song. Against this backdrop, Nas’ voice resonates with the confidence and knowledge that he’s delivering the valedictory statement of his masterpiece.

Through the course of ten more albums over the last twenty plus years, Nas hasn’t been able to top Illmatic, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his debut or the quality of his career. Nas has persevered on the course he set with Illmatic and, in doing so, has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in hip-hop. Perhaps Illmatic’s greatest strength draws from how well it has aged. A surprising number of highly rated hip-hop albums of this era now sound clumsy, ugly, and outdated. Illmatic has been compared many times to another debut from a gifted East Coast rapper from the same year, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Both men were in their early twenties when they released these albums, which cover nearly identical subject material and even share notable visual elements on their albums covers. I’ve listened to both albums repeatedly in the last several years, but just as I grow tired of the nihilism, brutality, and fatalism of Ready to Die, I find myself pulling closer to the resilience, humor, and imagination of Illmatic.

-         John Parsell

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