At its core, hip-hop is a sport. It’s all about who can write the better, harder-hitting and more clever lines and who can give the smoothest delivery. From the very beginning, hip-hop always had that “braggadocious” element as a main component of the genre. Over the years. however, only a few have released a project that makes people question who the top lyricist in the game is for years to come.
Legends like The Notorious B.I.G., Rakim and Eminem are some of the few who have sparked these conversations throughout their careers. However, at the age of only 20, Nas, a rapper from Queensbridge in New York City, did something no one else could with the album “Illmatic.” This record not only made people change their pick for top lyricist, but also their pick for the greatest hip-hop album of all time.
The term “illmatic” is Queensbridge slang for, “something that is the absolute illest.” That is the type of album that Nas wanted to make — one that was incredible from front to back. But that’s not the only reason this album is being archived in the Harvard Library. There’re more than just great rhymes put together between choruses over a nice beat. It’s the album, as a whole.
As a young man from Queens, Nas wanted to take the aspects of New York; the slang, the environment and the sounds, and put them all into this album. He wanted you to be able to transport to New York whenever you put on the record.
With the help of some of the most legendary producers from New York: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip, Nas was fully able to capture the aspects of New York City. He shows you what he sees and thinks as a young black man in New York’s projects in the 1990s. Touching on social issues still prevalent today, the album is able to sound relevant over 20 years later.
The crack game, police chases and shoot-outs– Nas paints a picture of what he’s seen in the ghettos of New York perfectly with wordplay that no one at the time was using. The raw emotions and detail he used was unlike anything other rappers were doing, especially those at his age. Songs like, “N.Y. State of Mind” and “ Halftime” really showcase Nas’s wordplay and impeccable flow. “N.Y. State of Mind” is considered not only the best song on the album, but also, one of the best hip-hop songs of all time.
One of the more memorable songs on the album, “One Love,” really showcases Nas’s story telling ability. The song consists of three verses over a smooth instrumental by Q-Tip. Each verse tells a different story, as each corresponds to a letter that Nas wrote his friends locked up in prison. The song goes into how prison can affect black men on the inside and outside.
The song, “Life’s a B***h,” feat AZ, my personal favorite, shows the viewpoints of two young black men in the street life. AZ’s verse is a little darker and shows the mentality that even though the life that they’re involved in is hard, they have to stay hustling and make it through. Nas’s verse is a bit more hopeful that they can make it out on the street.
Hip-hop goes through stages of incredible runs where years of great music comes out, then the genre becomes somewhat stagnant. When “Illmatic” came out, there was another, what people call, “Golden Age” of hip-hop. The genre was flipped on its side when Nas, this young kid from Queens, delivered an album that every other album is compared to. The record became a classic.
“Illmatic” inspired generations of rappers. New school leaders like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, even legends like Kanye West, Jay-Z and Eminem have stated that this album inspired them to hone their craft and better themselves lyrically. It’s the most celebrated album in hip-hop’s history with a cult-like backing.
There is a “before and after” when discussing “Illmatic,” meaning that hip-hop was one way before “Illmatic” came out, and after its release, hip-hop changed. It went from fly and smooth raps, to aggressive, poetic, and intricate rhyme schemes. “Illmatic” is a genre-defining album and hip-hop would not be where it is now without this classic. The overall quality of the album, historical significance and effect on the genre as a whole, make this album absolutely worthy of being archived in the Harvard Library.