Illmatic is the debut album of rapper Nas, released April 19, 1994 on Columbia Records. Recording sessions for the album took place from 1992 to 1993 at Chung King Studios, D&D Recording and Battery Studios in New York City. Illmatic features production from Main Source member Large Professor, DJ Pete Rock of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip and DJ Premier of Gang Starr, as well as a guest appearance from East New York, Brooklyn rapper AZ. The album has been noted by critics for its inner city narratives and Nas' unique lyrical ability.
In its first week of release, Illmatic debuted on the Billboard 200 at #12, while selling 59,000 copies. On December 11, 2001, it was certified platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America, and, as of that month, the album sold 3,000 copies a week in the United States. Since its initial critical acclaim upon release, the album has been recognized as one of the quintessential hip hop recordings of the 1990s, while its rankings at or near the top of many publications' "best album" lists in disparate genres has given Illmatic the reputation as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.
Meanwhile, the group 3rd Bass had dissolved, and MC Serch, a former member of the group, began working on a solo project. In mid-1992, Serch approached Nas. At the suggestion of producer T-Ray, Serch collaborated with Nas for "Back to the Grill", the lead single for Serch's solo album, Return of the Product. At the recording session of this song, Serch discovered that Nas did not have a recording contract and, as a result, he contacted Faith Newman, an A&R executive at Sony Music Entertainment. As Serch recounted:
Once Serch assumed the role of executive producer for Nas’ upcoming debut album, he attempted to connect Nas with various producers. Based on what they had already heard, numerous New York-based producers were eager to work with him and eventually entered the Power House Studios with Nas. Among these producers was DJ Premier.
DJ Premier also had this to say about the recording of "N.Y. State Of Mind":
In an early promotional interview, Nas claimed that the name "Illmatic" (meaning "beyond ill" or "the ultimate") was a reference to his incarcerated Queensbridge friend, Illmatic Ice. With the majority of the album recorded, DJ Premier contributed one last song before its completion. With the recording work over, the finished album was released on April 19, 1994. The album cover features a picture of Nas as a child, taken after his father, musician Olu Dara returned home from an overseas tour. The original cover was to feature Nas holding Jesus Christ in a headlock. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, on Raekwon's 1995 debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., criticized the cover of The Notorious B.I.G's Ready to Die (released a few months after Illmatic) for featuring a picture of a baby with an afro, implying that his cover had stolen the idea from Nas.
The intro, "Genesis", starts with an audio sample of the "Subway Theme" from the 1982 movie Wild Style, the first major hip hop motion picture. Nas made another ode to Wild Style, while shooting the music video for his single, "It Ain't Hard To Tell", on the same stage as the finale scene for the film. Nas' debut, "Live at the Barbeque" is played in the background of "Genesis". On "One Love", Nas writes a series of letters to a friend in prison, recounting several mutual acquaintances and the events that have occurred since the receiver's imprisonment. And in "N.Y. State of Mind", Nas recounts his participation in gang violence, and philosophizes that "Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain". The song focuses on a mind state that one can only truly have if they are raised in New York City. In other songs, Nas celebrates life's pleasures and achievements, acknowledging violence as a feature of his socio-economic conditions rather than the focus of his life.
The New York Times noted that Nas "imbues his chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness ... [He] reports violence without celebrating it, dwelling on the way life triumphs over grim circumstances rather than the other way around." And Time magazine praised the "submerged emotion" on Illmatic, calling the album a "wake-up call to [Nas]'s listeners."
Along with its powerful narratives, Illmatic gained acclaim for its lyrical substance. As Marc Lamont Hill of PopMatters writes: "Nas' complex rhyme patterns, clever word play, and impressive vocab took the art [of rapping] to previously unprecedented heights. Building on the pioneering work of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim, tracks like 'Halftime' and the laid back 'One Time 4 Your Mind' demonstrated a [high] level of technical precision and rhetorical dexterity". Hill cites "Memory Lane" as "an exemplar of flawless lyricism":
I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners
Hennessy holders and old school niggas, then I be dissin a
Unofficial that smoke woolie thai
I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie
Jungle survivor, fuck who's the liver
My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer
Sentence begins indented, with formality
My duration's infinite, money-wise or physiology
Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Childhood lesson made me see him drop in my weed smoke
The assembly of producers DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and Large Professor on a single project was unprecedented in hip hop music, since most hip hop albums had been primarily the work of one dedicated hip hop production team. According to one columnist: "Nas' Illmatic, widely considered one of the best albums in any genre made during the past two decades, is the first to draw together top hip hop producers in the recording industry.
The Source awarded Illmatic five mics out of five, a prestigious achievement given the magazine's influence in the hip hop community at the time. This was somewhat controversial, since it was unheard of for a debuting artist to receive a coveted rating. Reginald Dennis, former music editor of the magazine and XXL co-founder, stated:
Along with the critical acclaim of the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) and the critical and commercial success of The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die (1994), Illmatic was instrumental in restoring interest in the East Coast hip hop scene, while shifting the emphasis away from the melodious, synth-driven, and funk-induced West Coast G-funk (which dominated the charts for some time after Dr. Dre's The Chronic). Though initial sales were low, Illmatic went platinum in 2001. As Allmusic's Steve Huey writes: "It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics."
David Drake of Stylus Magazine wrote, "hip hop was on the come-up in '94. Everything that had been building in terms of production and rapping came to an apex in '94, the year that brought us both Notorious B.I.G.'s epic debut Ready to Die and Nas' trenchant street reflections on Illmatic...This was the critical point for the East Coast, a time when rappers from the New York area were releasing bucketloads of thrilling work". As Nas later recounted: "It felt amazing to be accepted by New York City in that way...at the time a lot of West Coast [hip-hop] was selling; East Coast wasn't selling as much, especially for a new artist. So back then you couldn't tell in the sales, but you could tell in the streets".
Illmatic is also credited with reviving the Queensbridge rap scene. Once home to prestigious pioneers such as Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Queensbridge had been one of the most productive hip hop scenes in the country during the 1980s, yet it was otherwise stagnant during the early-1990s. According to Nas: "I was coming from the legacy of Marley Marl, MC Shan, Juice Crew kind of vibe. Knowing these guys out in the neighborhood. At that time, the Queensbridge scene was dead. Dropping that album right there said a lot for me to carry on the legacy of the Queensbridge pioneers." In an April 2006 article, an XXL columnist wrote of the history and impact of the Queensbridge hip hop scene:
Following Illmatic's release, Queensbridge returned to prominence after years of obscurity, with the ascendancy of the influential hardcore rap group, Mobb Deep (who gained credibility due to their affiliation with Nas) and later with the emergence of the trend-setting duo, Capone-n-Noreaga. Furthermore, the album is credited with launching the career of the Brooklyn-based rapper, AZ. AZ, who gained instant exposure and underground credibility due to his appearance on "Life's a Bitch", became a frequent collaborator of Nas.
Hip hop artist and childhood friend Havoc reflecting on Illmatic in 2004:
1995, eleven years from the day
I'm in the record shop with choices to make
Illmatic on the top shelf, The Chronic on the left, homie
Wanna cop both but only got a twenty on me
So fuck it, I stole both, spent the twenty on a dub-sack
Ripped the package of Illmatic and bumped that
For my niggas it was too complex when Nas rhymed
I was the only Compton nigga with a New York State of Mind
On XXL's website, Illmatic was featured in a list of acclaimed hip hop albums, compiled by Clipse. Malice, a member of the hip hop duo, claimed: "Illmatic captured the whole New York state of mind for me. It embraced everything I knew New York to be. The album had 10 songs, all of them flawless. Me and my homies got great memories of rolling around listening to that, huslin', smokin', chillin'. That embodied everything that was right with hip-hop. That CD never came out my deck."
Lyrics from Illmatic have also been sampled by other rappers, including Big L's "Ebonics" (which samples "It Ain't Hard to Tell"), Milkbone's "Keep It Real" (which samples "Life's a Bitch"), Real Live's "Real Live Shit" (which samples "It Ain't Hard to Tell"), and most notably, Blu & Exile's "In Remembrance" (which samples "The World Is Yours" and "One Love") and Jay-Z's "Rap Game/Crack Game" (which samples "Represent") and "Dead Presidents II" (which samples "The World Is Yours"). Common's critically acclaimed album, Be, has been said to have been molded after Illmatic.
|1||"The Genesis"||1:45||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|2||"N.Y. State of Mind"||4:54||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|3||"Life's a Bitch"||3:30||Nas||Anthony Cruz |
Lashan David Lewis
|4||"The World Is Yours"||4:50||Nas ||Nasir Jones |
|5||"Halftime"||4:20||Nas||Gary Byrd |
|6||"Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"||4:08||Nas||P. Barsella |
|7||"One Love"||5:25||Nas ||Jonathan Davis |
|8||"One Time 4 Your Mind"||3:18||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|9||"Represent"||4:12||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|10||"It Ain't Hard to Tell"||3:22||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|1||"Life's a Bitch (remix)"||3:00||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|2||"The World Is Yours (remix)"||3:56||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|3||"One Love (remix)"||5:09||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|4||"It Ain't Hard to Tell (remix)"||3:26||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|5||"On the Real"||3:26||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|6||"Star Wars"||4:08||Nas||Nasir Jones |
|U.S. Billboard 200||12|
|U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums||2|
|Billboard Hot 100||Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs||Hot Rap Tracks|
|1994||"It Ain't Hard to Tell"||91||57||13|
|"The World Is Yours"||114||67||27|
|"Life's a Bitch"||—||—||—|
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.
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